Experiences of a pharmacy student on the front line during the Covid-19 outbreak

Pharmacy student Melissa Duggan did not anticipate that her placement would involve caring for patients during a global pandemic

May 18 2020
coronavirus, student, university, uncertainty, covid-19, pharmacy

On 6 January 2020, I started the first day of my eight-month APPEL-accredited pharmacy placement working in a community pharmacy in Cork City in the Republic of Ireland.

This moment had been building up for the past four years, so I was both excited and nervous for the year ahead. Now I am halfway into my placement, and I still find it hard to believe how much things have changed since I started.

A new routine has developed that involves gowning up with gloves, face masks and plastic aprons as soon as we enter the pharmacy, as well as disinfecting all the work benches, computers and cash machines before the doors open to customers.

We allow no more than three people into the pharmacy at one time, and we make sure that everybody adheres to the social distancing rules by placing markers on the floor to show people where they should stand. We have a tent erected outside the door to shelter people who have to wait for their prescriptions on rainy days. We have also put up a plastic shield at the counter to protect ourselves.

At the beginning of the lockdown in Ireland, the community pharmacy was a very busy and stressful environment. There was huge demand for hand sanitiser, masks and gloves, resulting in a shortage of supply during the first few weeks.

Our patients began to worry that they would not be able to collect their medication, which led them to order their prescriptions early and for a few months at a time. Because the wholesalers found it very difficult to keep up with the demand across Ireland, very few orders were being delivered on time or even at all. There were many medicine shortages, which meant that we had to ring other pharmacies to source some medicines for our patients.

Despite it being chaotic, our patients were very understanding, with some bringing us sweets and chocolates to brighten up our day. These treats were a welcome boost to keep team morale high. This sense of community spirit has really lifted me up over the past few weeks.


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Thankfully, that busy period has finished, and things are beginning to settle down to some extent. New pharmacy legislation introduced by the Irish government has eased the pressure for pharmacists and doctors. Prescriptions are now valid for nine months, which makes it easier for those who cannot attend their appointments. Email prescriptions via Healthmail are now valid, and this has become one of the main ways we receive prescription requests instead of as a hard copy.

A lot of things have changed for me personally over the past two months, too. It is hard not being able to meet up with friends and family at the weekend, or to go out for dinner or visit the cinema. Currently, we are allowed out only within a 5km radius.

I play Gaelic football at county level. We used to train four to five times a week before the lockdown, but it is difficult to motivate yourself to keep training by yourself.

My university, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), has been a huge help throughout these uncertain times. For our master’s degree, we had to write a 5,000-word clinical research project and submit it at the end of summer. Now, however, we have been given the option of completing extra placement-based learning and submitting a 2,000-word research-informed critical reflection about our learning as front-line healthcare professionals in our placement instead. This change came as a relief to many students.

The college emails us frequent Covid-19 updates, including all new guidelines that may be useful to us. It is great to get the correct information sent through so often.

On Fridays, you can partake in the RCSI challenge, an interactive quiz for students to compete in and have fun.

The RCSI gym hosts live workout sessions every day via Facebook Live, which include HIIT sessions, yoga classes and more. It has also introduced a new challenge, RCSItogether10K, which encourages students and staff to run 10km on 27 June. This sounds very exciting, and the gym team will even give you a free nine-week training plan to prepare you for the challenge.

The activities the college has been putting on for students and staff are incredible, and they have been so important for maintaining my own health and well-being. I would never have imagined any of this happening while I was on placement, but even though it has been challenging and stressful at times, I am learning a lot and developing as a person and as a pharmacist. The support I have received from my friends, family, the community and the RCSI has helped me immensely throughout this challenging time.

Read more: Coronavirus: when learning never (quite) stops

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