Searching for meaning: one pharmacist’s Kokoda lessons

Jennifer Culverson with Orange Ex-Services' Club CEO Cameron Provost. Image: Melise Coleman

Orange pharmacist Jennifer Culverson has been named joint winner of the 2017 Spirit of Kokoda Award

A question from her father prompted Ms Culverson’s quest to find a greater purpose in life: “Do I feel the manner in which I am living my life at this point in time is what the members of the Australian Defence Force at Kokoda (and on other campaigns) would have envisaged they were giving their lives for?”

While applying and interviewing to be part of the Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge in 2016, she wasn’t sure of the answer, despite having graduated university as a pharmacist and giving back to her community through her work at Orange Health Service.

A Central West local – she grew up on a farm near Molong, and studied pharmacy at Charles Sturt University’s Orange campus after working as a pharmacy assistant at the town’s McCarthy’s pharmacy – Ms Culverson had always had a strong interest in helping others.

“In many ways my foundation years in life at home and on the farm have promoted the development of my personal set of values which hinge upon community,” she told the AJP.

“Within my childhood I was always encouraged to actively participate within community groups and I continue to uphold this tradition to this day for example; I am an active member of the Rural Fire Service and volunteer at the local soccer canteen on the weekends.

“It is these experiences which represent the foundations to my interest to assist others in any way, shape and/or form.”

Ms Culverson and friends at Kokoda.

Applying for the Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge underlined her desire to “get up each morning with a drive to see more and do more with my existence,” she says.

“The KYLC to me represented an avenue to respect my families military history, learn about the history and significance of the Kokoda Campaign through the participation in a national leadership program and discover who I am and what I value as an individual on a personal and professional level.

“It would be no surprise that the Kokoda Trail is a physically arduous task for any individual no matter how fit and/or able bodied they are.

“That being said, the most challenging part of the leadership program for me was the mental aspect. The moments of deep internalised thoughts often precipitated by the location(s) that I was in represents the experiences that challenged me the most as an individual.

“My outlook on life, my perceptions of situations and to a degree my lack of knowledge in relation to the intricate workings of the world were all put on a pedestal for me to reflect upon, learn and grow from.

“Pushing myself to be outside of my comfort zone mentally was the most difficult yet life changing outcomes of the KYLC.”

Ms Culverson was sponsored by the Orange Ex-Services Club to enter the Spirit of Kokoda Award, which recognises a former trekker who has used the experience to most advance their life goals and taken significant steps towards those aspirations since completing the trek.

“The fact that I was nominated by the Orange Ex-Services was overwhelming enough but when I was announced a joint winner at the ceremony in Adelaide; I was extremely humbled by the encouragement I received from ex-services men and women from all around Australia,” Ms Culverson says.

“It is nice to know that I am ‘on the right track’ (pun intended) in life!”


Life goals

Ms Culverson says that her Kokoda trek was a turning point in her life, teaching her lessons which she uses in her day-to-day life as a hospital pharmacist, and when volunteering internationally.

After her return from the Kokoda Trail, she went to a medical camp in Nepal to volunteer as a pharmacist.

Volunteering in Nepal.

“My role as a pharmacist was in many ways similar to what it is in Australia in relation to the medication supply and counselling roles however; the complexity and challenges of care are very different and relied heavily upon my ability to develop cultural competence and be resourceful in my practice,” she says.

“I focused heavily upon my counselling particularly on basic first aid advice and wound management as I felt that imparting knowledge may assist on a longer-term scale when the medical team departed.

“I have also recently returned from a trip to Vanuatu as a part of the National Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values Bridging Initiative which is a program focused upon the concept of servant leadership. The team visited many community areas including the school, correctional facility, university and hospital.

“For me as a pharmacist, my role was varied and ranged from assisting with minor ailments to attending to more severe wounds such as a foot related injury sustained by an angle grinder!”

These experiences have ignited a desire to travel and work within various areas across Australia and overseas, she says.

“At this stage in my professional life (as an ECP), I am focusing on building my skills through post graduate studies and varying practice environments whilst utilising my annual leave to partake in truly meaningful volunteer experiences.

“It is my hope to continue to branch into longer term volunteer/work opportunities in future.”

These include a plan to participate in a medical tour in the Solomon Island next year with the Solutions pa Marovo group, which sees volunteers perform health and education work.


Pharmacy goals

Ms Culverson is also giving back to the profession: she’s strongly involved with the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and its Early Career Pharmacist initiatives.

“Within the first few years post-graduation I often found myself contemplating the challenges that my pharmacy colleagues spoke about in relation to the scope of pharmacy practice expansion and remuneration, to name a few,” she says.

“Sitting on the outside of these discussions made me question if these challenges could be overcome.

“I was keen and eager to make a difference but noted that as a single pharmacist my tenacity to challenge the status quo of pharmacy did not carry any weight (being an introvert does not help either). Yes, I could share my individual recommendations and ‘flares of innovation’ with the management team of the Orange hospital pharmacy department but I quickly began to realise that these ideas would not impact or assist my colleagues outside of this pharmacy bubble.

“Becoming a member of the PSA’s NSW Early Career Pharmacist Working Group and White Paper Advisory Committee has provided me with an avenue to have my voice heard and advocate for rural/regional pharmacists like myself.

“As an ECP I believe the first five to 10 years of pharmacy practice assists pharmacists to cultivate and develop their ‘pharmacy toolbox’ in a manner which builds upon and augments the foundations of their future career.

“We are not limited by the constraints of being a hospital or community pharmacist; pharmacy has the potential to offer so much more and my work within the PSA ECP groups and attendance at conferences has assisted me to realise and appreciate this.”

She says she also often thinks about the issue of succession planning within the pharmacy industry.

“For me, the ECP and student cohort are the future of pharmacy and I believe investing time into their professional development is one of the most important roles within our careers as pharmacists,” Ms Culverson told the AJP.

“To assist an ECP to cultivate their pharmacy passion into a mission in life is a skill that I was mentored through and a skill that I am now trying to give back.”

In the meantime, she’s worked at Orange Health Service since she began work as an intern in 2014, currently working on the general medical ward.

The Orange Health Services team.

“A unique part of that role as a pharmacist is that I am a member of the Structured Interdisciplinary Bedside Rounding (SIBR) multidisciplinary team. Other team members include the doctors (junior medical officers, registrars and consultants), nurses, physiotherapist, dietician, speech pathologist, discharge planner and of course the patient.

“This role incorporates daily rounding in a patient-centred manner and enables each team member to have an equal voice in relation to optimal patient management across the care continuum.

“Among other ‘odd jobs’ I also facilitate the hospital outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation and falls prevention programs from a pharmacy perspective.

“Participation within these programs allow me to build upon my passion for education and follow up on patients management post discharge from hospital.”

And Ms Culverson says she’s passionate about rural and regional pharmacy, particularly the diversity of practice it’s possible to build up in this setting.

“I have had the opportunity to upskill within numerous ward environments and even worked as the clinical trials pharmacist, which allowed me to be a part of the medication development process from ground up,” she says.

“Growing up within a rural area has enabled me to form strong relationships within my local community. Working as a pharmacist within this community has promoted the consolidation of these relationships and allowed me to become a key member of each individual’s healthcare team and subsequently follow their progress throughout their transitions from hospital and home and vice versa.

“I have heard it said that it must be ‘boring to grow up, study and work within the one town’ but from my perspective growth and development opportunities are enhanced by the long-term relationships I have formed within my early career both with colleagues and patients alike.”

But that said, “It is my belief that comfort has the potential to breed complacency and if/when I begin to become too comfortable I will take the appropriate steps to push outside of this comfort zone.”


Lessons from the Kokoda Trail

Ms Culverson says she learned many life lessons from her trek, particularly an understanding of the four values of the Kokoda Campaign: mateship, courage, endurance and sacrifice.


“Being open to conversations, asking questions and showing interest breeds a sense of mateship that is built upon a shared interest of each other’s life stories and what makes a person who they are. This lesson I feel is very pertinent to the conversations I have with patients in the hospital pharmacy setting.

“If one allows themselves to let down personal barriers and walls, lifelong friendships can be forged through adversity and/or enduring an experience together. These bonds can help an individual through times when they otherwise may seek to give up; for example, trekking up Brigade Hill in a downpour of rain.


“The courage to analyse your life. To recognise the good and the bad aspects and make active plans to confront issues head on.

“The courage to stand up for what you believe in and live by your ethical and moral compass despite the ramifications.

“Stemming from mateship, having the personal courage to share your life with others.


“The endurance to never give up. To push yourself both mentally and physically. To strive for the ‘unachievable’ and continue to work towards goals which yourself and others may perceive you as ‘incapable of achieving’.


“To comprehend the magnitude of Australia’s military history. To appreciate the sacrifice men and women have and do make for our country is a humbling and thought-provoking experience unlike any other.”

And also:

“The requirement to learn and grow with those around you and to appreciate the values that shape each individual at the core. This lesson has assisted me a great deal within my pharmacy practice as it guides me on a daily basis to ensure I am practicing in a patient-centered manner.

“That my personal perception of weakness was incorrect. I had previously believed that it was a sign of weakness to talk about one’s failures; however I came to recognise this as being a strong area for growth and development for myself and others.

“That ‘a team is only as strong as its weakest member’ and that it is possible to be a leader and an introvert.”

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