For pharmacy students, service classes offer insight into patients

Give Kids the World 2015 group

These members of the FDU School of Pharmacy community donated their time and talent at the nonprofit Give Kids the World in Kissimmee, Fla., on spring break 2015. (Photo courtesy of Chadwin Sandifer)

By Kenna Caprio

Two very different populations: pediatric and homeless patients. They, like all patients, though, are united by very similar needs: to be heard. To be understood. To be known.

This semester, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s School of Pharmacy debuted two new service-driven classes, called Service Learning: Pediatric Population and Service Learning: Low-Income Families and Homeless Population. Twenty-seven students enrolled in these elective courses.

“As pharmacists, they’re going to be in lots of situations where they’re going to have to take this special leap and get to know who they’re serving,” says Chadwin Sandifer, assistant dean for student affairs and programmatic effectiveness. “It can’t just be, ‘Did you get your medication?’ or ‘Here, sign the form.’ That’s not what we want to see out of the students we’re producing. I want them to be more compassionate, empathetic individuals.”

Back in 2013, Sandifer took a group of students to Give Kids the World Village in Kissimmee, Fla., for an alternative spring break service trip. The nonprofit resort provides lodging for children facing life-threatening illness and their families, as they fulfill wishes and explore theme parks in nearby Orlando. The experience, which also ran in 2014 and 2015, was more informal then, structured solely as a service trip that any pharmacy student could apply for.

Give Kids the World spa‪“Something as simple as a conversation can make someone’s day,” says Patty Szmuc, a third-year pharmacy student from Wayne, N.J. She participated in the Spring 2015 Give Kids the World trip and is now enrolled in the homeless service course.

Veronica Feltrin (L) and Mariana Milan (R) at the La Ti Da Spat at the Give Kids The World village. ‬(Photo courtesy of Sandifer)

Sandifer realized the whole experience could be even more impactful for the pharmacy students if it became part of the curriculum, which ultimately led to the development of the pediatrics course. That class now culminates with the trip to Give Kids the World over spring break. In the course, students learn to interact directly with young patients. Crouching down to their level and addressing them instead of a parent or guardian is essential.

When Szmuc returned from the 2015 trip, she found herself putting what she learned into practice at her Stop & Shop pharmacy job. “I was noticing all these children everywhere, when I hadn’t noticed them at all before. I was giving them high-fives and getting to know them,” she says. At the Village, student volunteers serve ice cream (available to the children all day!), coordinate nighttime group activities, run the wheelchair-accessible train, carousel and Ferris wheel, and more.

“Personally, I know going into it that the individuals and families are going to impact me immensely,” says Andrew Filewicz, a third-year pharmacy student from Wenonah, N.J., as he looks forward to the upcoming trip. “Whether it’s helping them load in to a car, giving a kid a smile or some ice cream — just the smallest things. I always want to see other people smile.”

It can be emotionally and physically draining work, and Sandifer makes sure the pharmacy students know that ahead of time.

“One of the things that I discussed with students on the first day of both classes was how hard it is to give with an open heart,” says Sandifer. “We’re there to serve and to make their lives better for whatever time we’re there, for whatever population we’re serving.”

The group debriefs each night of the trip, and he plans to continue discussions during the semester. Reflecting allows students to internalize what they’re experiencing.

“The students are realizing that people are people. People have hearts and they just want to be loved and taken care of. So, we really relate that to pharmacy and how that plays out in whatever area of pharmacy they decide to practice,” says Sandifer.

In the homeless course, 17 students split into two smaller groups to alternate weeks of service at the Eric Johnson House in Morristown, N.J. The house, through NJ AIDS Services, provides temporary room and board for up to two years, for 10 local homeless people who’ve been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. The program facilitates transition services for these individuals in preparation for their return to permanent housing.

NJ AIDS Services pharma volsEach week FDU pharmacy students are prepping and cooking lunch for the residents — at the beginning of the semester they developed a healthy meal plan called “FDU Fit-Friendly Fridays” — then they all share the meal together. Afterward, students connect with the residents: they chat, watch TV, work on résumés, set up Gmail or Facebook accounts and more.

School of Pharmacy students prepare lunch for residents of the Eric Johnson House. (Photo courtesy of NJ AIDS Services)

“When I walk in there, I don’t want to be just another student that’s volunteering for hours or credit,” says Hamza Elhaouati, a third-year pharmacy student from Casabalanca, Morocco. “I want them to feel like I’m there to enjoy their company, which I do.”

They’ll also do presentations on financial planning, healthy eating and nutrition, and job-hunting for the residents.

Michelle Lewis, a third-year pharmacy student from Mount Vernon, N.Y., also taking the homeless class, adds: “I want people who might feel like they have no one to know that is not true. They are important and their lives have meaning and value. In any way I can help, I want to.”

Both classes emphasize group work, reflection and discussion.

“Dealing with patients who are very sick is very difficult,” says Szmuc. “How do you talk to someone without breaking down into tears? We learn about the diseases, we learn about the signs and symptoms, and how to treat them, but you really don’t grasp the enormity of the disease until you see it with your own eyes.”

NJ AIDS Services pharma vols prep

Szmuc and Elhaouati both suggest that all pharmacy students would benefit from taking at least one of the service-learning courses. “I think that this experience should be mandatory,” says Elhaouati. A portion of funding for these experiences is sponsored in partnership with Walgreens.

School of Pharmacy students ‪Michelle Lewis and Bianca DeAgresta chop ingredients and prep lunch at the Eric Johnson House‬. (Photo courtesy of Sandifer)

“It’s not just a pill and a person, there’s an individual there. Just like we’re supposed to individualize therapy for them, because one drug is not good for all patients, it should be the same thing when you’re talking to them. People don’t have a stamp on their head that says ‘AIDS,’” says Szmuc. “They’re more than their diagnosis. The key to good patient care is to find out who that person is.”

Sandifer is currently developing a geriatrics service-learning course, with hopes of offering it starting in the Fall 2017 semester.

“I wish that I could bottle up everything that they experience during these initiatives and have them carry it for the rest of their lives, because they come back with such a deeper appreciation, even for holding the door open for someone and smiling,” says Sandifer.