When Melinda Bai (PharmD ’24) and Shirley Ma (PharmD ’24) signed up to complete their co-op work terms in Edson, Alberta, they did not expect to undergo not only one, but two wildfire evacuations, flood warnings and tornado watches. This was a co-op experience like no other.

Battling nerves and emergency evacuations

“The day before our work term started, we received news that the small town we were to work in evacuated the day before,” Bai says. “I was pretty nervous. We didn’t know anyone else, and we didn’t know what to expect.”

Bai and Ma spent a week in a hotel in Edmonton waiting for the wildfire evacuations to subside. Once the residents relocated into town, Bai and Ma began their work term.

Just as they settled into their positions, a month later a second evacuation occurred.

“The skies were getting darker by the hour, the smoke was building up and the sun looked like a little red dot,” Ma says. “It was scary for us, but I can’t imagine how terrifying it was for the residents of Edson who had to leave their homes were at the risk of losing everything.”

The second evacuation was longer and more serious.

“We could hear the panic in people’s voices,” Bai says. “It was challenging to manage our own fears and anxieties while keeping patients calm through the emergency.”

Talking to co-workers and helping one another through this difficult time was key. The patients also appreciated the bigger support system provided by the whole pharmacy staff.

Bai and Ma each packed a bag and evacuated from Edson back to Edmonton. After a week and a half, the smoke subsided, initiating a second return to the town.

“When we got the go ahead from local authorities to relocate, we didn’t know what we were walking into,” Bai says. “Was there any smoke damage? Were products and medications damaged? Were there power outages that may have affected storage?”

Bai and Ma, alongside their pharmacy coworkers were able to relocate 24 hours before the residents to assess whether any damage had occurred and ensure patients had their medications ready as soon as they re-entered the town.

Pharmacist-led clinics

Shoppers Drug Mart in Edson is one of the first locations in Canada to have a pharmacist-led clinic incorporated into the pharmacy. In Alberta, pharmacists may practice to their full scope, counsel patients, give injections and write prescriptions. Coming from Ontario, Bai and Ma had to quickly adapt to this new expanded scope of practice.

“Naturally there was a learning curve at the start,” says Callen Kenyon, manager and associate owner at Shoppers Drug Mart. “The knowledge was there and their ability to adapt and become integral team players within our pharmacy was seamless.”

Melinda and Shirley at the Shoppers Drug Mart Pharmacy Care Clinic in Edson, Alberta

Bai and Ma at the Shoppers Drug Mart Pharmacy Care Clinic in Edson, Alberta

After a few weeks, Bai and Ma were working directly in the clinic – leading patient consults, renewing prescriptions and managing chronic pain conditions such as hypertension or diabetes.

“We were quickly comfortable with Bai and Ma to take appointments on their own, based on their comfort level,” Callen says.

Clinic room at Shoppers Drug Mart in Edson, Alberta

Clinic room at Shoppers Drug Mart in Edson, Alberta

In addition to the clinic, both Bai and Ma worked in the dispensary where they prepared medications for patients.

Callen also expressed how great it was that the students incorporated themselves into the community. “You don’t always see that in a lot of students. It was great to see them squeeze out every portion they could from this experience.”

Tips for rural and northern co-op work terms

Both Bai and Ma highly recommend future students apply to experience pharmacy in other provinces across Canada.

They advise students to:

  • Research and become familiar with the area beforehand.
  • Try to get access to a car, it may be essential in rural areas where there is no public transport.
  • Face challenges and take risks.
  • Make the most out of the experience and be open to new learning opportunities.

“This was an unreal experience, and it really opened my eyes,” Ma says. “We had flood warnings and a tornado touched down a couple towns over. I now see the full picture of how pharmacists can make a valuable difference to Canada’s health-care system, their patients and the community, both through a full scope of practice and in emergency situations.”

This co-op work term was challenging in unexpected ways for Bai and Ma but everything they experienced and learned have prepared them for future emergency situations, giving them confidence in their future pharmacy careers.

Shirley and Melinda hiking in Alberta

Bai and Ma hiking in Alberta