Pharmacy U

Tamara Begin – My experience as an aid worker


by Tamara Bégin, BSc.Phm.

My life as a pharmacist has taken an unconventional path. I graduated from Dalhousie University in 1992 and spent the first five years of my career with the Canadian Armed Forces as a pharmacist in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and Petawawa, Ontario. While in Petawawa, I was selected to be a member of the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), which provides humanitarian assistance to people impacted by natural disasters around the world. The training I received as a member of the DART sparked an interest in humanitarian work that couldn’t be extinguished. Although I left the Canadian Forces to become a retail pharmacy owner before I got the chance to deploy with the DART, that spark continued to smoulder for many years.

After nine years as a pharmacy owner, I felt that I was still missing something and decided to take a career break to travel the world with my young family for a year. In that year, we visited many developing countries where we witnessed a great deal of poverty and suffering, and I was frustrated by my inability to do anything concrete to help. After our return to Canada, I decided to work as a relief pharmacist to have the flexibility to explore opportunities within the humanitarian field.

In 2012, my dream became a reality when I was accepted to be a member of the Canadian Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU). An ERU is a standardized package of trained personnel and state-of-the-art equipment that is ready to be sent at short notice to some of the most remote regions of the world, providing vital healthcare aid to anyone affected by natural disasters, emergencies of conflict. The Canadian Red Cross has multiple configurations of an ERU, including a full field hospital or a mobile clinic.

My role as a pharmacist with the team is both clinical and logistical. As a pharmacist, I assist the other medical professionals, both local and international, to work with a very limited supply of medications in low resource settings. Logistically, I am responsible for ensuring that our team has the medications and medical supplies needed to do their jobs. This requires monitoring inventory, predicting needs and resupplying in very challenging circumstances.

Each of my deployments with the ERU has been an adventure that has taken me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to grow and learn, both as a professional and as a human being.

Working in the Philippines in 2013, I learned the power of teamwork as our team worked side by side with the staff of a local hospital which had been almost completely destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan. I was humbled and inspired by the dedication and resiliency of the local doctors and nurses who continued to work long hours despite being impacted by the typhoon themselves, many who had no home to return to at night.

In the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in 2015, our team was faced with many logistical challenges due to impassable roads that blocked access to the most vulnerable in need. Once again, we had to work together to strip down our field hospital to the most essential medical equipment and supplies that could be transported by helicopter to the remote mountain region where we were needed. A few weeks into our time in Nepal, we too, experienced firsthand the sheer power of Mother Nature as a powerful 7.3 magnitude aftershock rocked the ground beneath our feet.

In 2016, I was sent to Haiti as part of a mobile clinic team to reach remote communities that had been cut off from healthcare because of Hurricane Matthew. Every day, we faced new challenges as we struggled to overcome obstacles to reach those in need.  For me, the highlight of this deployment was the day we were able to deliver medical aid to the village of Cap à Fou, a seaside village that had been cut off from the outside world for six weeks after the hurricane.

My most recent mission was in Bangladesh in 2018. I felt like a small piece of a big operation as thousands of aid workers worked tirelessly to help hundreds of thousands of people who had fled violence in Myanmar. Even though my efforts felt like a drop in the bucket, I realized that the collective efforts of many were making a difference.

Humanitarian work is not for everyone – it requires a sense of adventure, creativity, resourcefulness and a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone. However, being able to provide assistance to our neighbours around the world, instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines, makes it all worthwhile.

Tamara Bégin, BSc.Phm. is a pharmacist/consultant with Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix in Montreal.