Pharmacy U

GUEST POST: Africa Mercy pharmacist Sandy Hewitt shops for pharmaceuticals


This past month, I went shopping in Toamasina, where the Africa Mercy has been docked since August, 2015.


By Sandy Hewitt



Shopping here is an experience in and of itself, let alone when you are shopping for pharmaceuticals. Every once in a while, one of our shipping containers does not arrive on time and our pharmaceutical orders are late. In this case, we are just at the tail end of cyclone season so sometimes the ships do not arrive to port when expected because they are avoiding bad weather.

Back home, when we need to buy something from another pharmacy, a quick phone call arranges everything and in less than half an hour, we have what we need. It’s not so easy when you are half way across the world in one of the poorest countries. I called my friend Michael, the engineering storeman. He is used to finding what he needs in town and is comfortable driving through the busy streets. Michael sends me his Malagasy helper, who is an excellent interpreter. After numerous phone calls, some successful and some not, we determine that one location will have one injectable drug we need and we will have to drive around town, looking for the other.

We are thankful for air-conditioning in the Land Cruiser because it is both hot and humid. We drive to a local hospital where Mercy Ships has been helping them upgrade their surgical suites to WHO standards and implement the WHO surgical checklist. Imagine my surprise when we discover that the pharmacy is a barred window in the side of the building where people line up outside. Kind of reminded me of the drive-through window at my pharmacy back home, minus the cars!

On the day that we were there, I am sure there were 30 people all waiting for prescriptions to be filled, sitting on benches and standing in line. There was no way to get through the crowd so our Malagasy day-worker had us wait to the side while he squeezed into the crowd and made his way to the window. No computers, no cash registers, just a hand written receipt given to us along with the ampules we needed, with no identification required on our part. And for a fraction of the cost in Canada!

We then drove to another hospital in town, originally built by the Chinese. It is a beautiful, modern facility and it is so empty, it nearly echoes. There is no money to run the hospital up to its capability. The pharmacy here is inside and there is no one waiting. They have what we are looking for and are very eager to sell it to us at a greatly reduced price because Mercy Ships is doing so much for the Malagasy people. I am so thankful and tell them so in my limited French.

By this time, we are sweaty and tired and I am wondering how long pharmaceuticals last in this heat without refrigeration. Michael navigates back through the chaos of the streets to the port gate and back to the Africa Mercy. From start to finish, with the phone calls that were made ahead of time, it has taken over two hours. Less time than I thought it would.  Just another day in the life here!


Sandy Hewitt will be blogging regularly on about her experiences as a pharmacist on the Africa Mercy ship.