Australian pharmacist without borders

After five assignments, Grace Yoo is back in Victoria, proud of using her pharmacy skills to help people in need through Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

What led you to pharmacy?

At 17, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, so I talked to friends, mentors and family, and they suggested working in health care. The idea of helping people really appealed to me, so I applied for pharmacy. It was tough at first because chemistry was not my strong point, but as we started focusing on clinical pharmacy, I knew I was in the right field.

What inspired you to join MSF (Doctors Without Borders)?

I have always had an interest in volunteering and giving back to the community. I stumbled across MSF while researching overseas volunteering opportunities and was excited to discover MSF was looking for pharmacists. Its values of impartiality, neutrality, independence and témoignage (bearing witness) really appealed to me. I knew that once I had gained pharmacy experience that I would apply to work for MSF.

What is a pharmacist role with MSF?

As a project pharmacist and pharmacy coordinator over five assignments, there was never a dull moment. In these roles, I was responsible for ensuring the quality use of medicines, medical equipment and consumables, as well as coordinating the medical supply process and ensuring adequate stock management. I also acted as technical support for the field pharmacists and had the pleasure of being a mentor for new, incoming pharmacists. Additionally, I helped to formulate the international medical order (from MSF HQ) and was involved in recruiting, hiring and training local pharmacy staff, so that we could build their skills and knowledge.

What are the challenges and rewards of an MSF pharmacist?

Stock management is always challenging, as we order internationally, mostly, three times a year taking into account equipment needs or replacements or seasonal changes that impact malaria, respiratory disease or birth rate spikes. You can’t order insulin for delivery the next day. Instead, an order for the whole of South Sudan might be delivered by air freight or ship in 2–3 months from our main warehouse in Bordeaux, France. Most rewarding is working in a diverse team, helping deliver much-needed medical care in areas of great need. Patients are so appreciative and resilient, despite being in unimaginable hardship. It’s a privilege to work for communities who have experienced severe violation of their human rights.

What MSF experience has deeply impacted you?

In northern Nigeria, MFS runs a maternity hospital that provides corrective surgery to women, often as young as 15 years, with obstetric fistulas. This debilitating condition can cause women to lose control over their urine and (sometimes) fecal discharge, leaving them excluded from their community and often abandoned by their husband and families. While on this project, the surgeon at the time invited me to witness this life-transforming surgery, which is something I will never forget. I have also learnt so much from these women’s stories, their suffering and resilience.

What advice do you have for ECPs?

My advice is to keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to try working in a variety of work settings. Be curious! You never know what opportunities lie ahead. I found that working in a variety of settings (community pharmacy, and private and public hospitals) really helped me to figure out my areas of interest. I also met some incredible people who I really look up to and have made lifelong friends.

Typical day in the life of Grace Yoo, Pharmacy Coordinator, in South Sudan.

8-10 am Office, meetings, warehouse visit

Attend office meeting and security updates from Head of Mission and give pharmacy related updates to the team on international orders, new staff or pending shipments, then organise the team’s work. Medical supplies include antibiotics, simple pain medicines, malaria treatments, test kits.

10 am – 1 pm Administration and logistics

Discuss medical orders being shipped to the field. Could include 100,000 paracetamol tablets, 5,000 tablets of ibuprofen, 2,000 albendazole, two stethoscopes, 100 hemocue machine strips and one medication trolley etc. Medical stock is delivered by plane or refrigerated truck on the road. Solve logistical issues, such as temperature control or inability to access airstrips or roads due to rainy seasons, with supply and logistics team. Reply to emails re projects across the country – strategising plans for shortages, consumption monitoring, give clinical advice

1-2 pm  Food!

The team enjoys lunch together.

2 – 5 pm Looking ahead

Attend coordination meetings to discuss operations, plan for upcoming year, complete monthly consumption data report. Talk with the medical coordinator to plan the next field visit. Here, we also share challenges and achievements. Then touch base with the team that returns from the warehouse.

5-7 pm Still strategising and planning

Back home, I continue working: analysing and monitoring usage against medical data to ensure protocol adherence (e.g. antibiotics), strategising and planning for overstock and shortages (e.g. planning medicines movement from one project to another so medicines do not unnecessarily expire), and working on the international order for the next quarter. 

7-10 pm Communal dinner, beers and chats

Enjoy dinner with the team outside in the communal area. Maybe even have a couple of beers and chat with incoming or outgoing fieldworkers.