Iryna smiling on a hike around Volcan Irazu National Park
Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Exploring pharmacy Costa Rica style

Pura vida.

The expression, a common saying in Costa Rica, means ‘pure life.’ For Iryna Zhyrnova, the words have become a sort of mantra.

Last August, Iryna travelled to Costa Rica as part of the Student Exchange Program organized by the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation (IPSF) through CAPSI. While there, she experienced that pure life in its fullest. Her days were a blend of community pharmacy practice and immersion in the local community, from bonding with her host family, to climbing a volcano, to training with local acrobats.

“I come from a family of tumbleweeds,” says Iryna, who was born in Ukraine and came to Canada when she was a teenager. “We travel all over. I’ve always wanted to explore new places and different ways of practicing pharmacy.”

Even before beginning pharmacy school, Iryna knew she was interested in student exchanges. As a Cosmetics Manager at Shoppers, she’d learned about Pierre Fabre, a French pharmaceutical company with an impressive global impact.

“I remember sitting in training and learning about the wide reach of this company – the way that they provided medication access, health care access and public health campaigns in developing countries around the world,” Iryna says.

The company’s impact informed personal goals. When Iryna started pharmacy school, she planned for ways that she too could have a global impact.

“I learned about the IPSF organization and how they helped pharmacy students find placements around the world. I knew I wanted to apply,” she says.

But that was where Iryna hit her first obstacle. Other students told her there simply wasn’t time in the busy PharmD curriculum for a four-week exchange.

“I’m the type of person who believes that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says. “I was determined to make it work.”

Through conversations with Student Exchange Program reps and staff at Waterloo Pharmacy, Iryna learned that two weeks was the minimum required time for an exchange. For Waterloo Pharmacy students, there was in fact enough time between the end of exams and the start of a co-op term to explore an exchange. 

“It came down to asking questions and communicating,” she says. “Yes, there could be some barriers with timing, but if you work with your co-op employers to ensure you have some flexibility, an exchange is possible.”

Iryna made this discovery late in 2020 and applications were due by December. She and another Waterloo Pharmacy student applied. Both were accepted, and in August 2021, Iryna flew to the town of Belen Costa Rica.

COVID restrictions changed between when she applied and when she arrived, but Iryna kept up to date on the guidelines and worked with SEP representatives to ensure that she complied with policies.

Iryna had travelled in Guatemala and Belize before and has a goal of exploring all the countries in Central America. Costa Rica was of particular interest for a few reasons:

“Costa Rica is a country with universal health-care and free pharmacare,” she says. “They have very different parameters on what can be dispensed without a prescription – birth control, for example – and the World Health Organization ranks the country as having some of the top health-care in the world.”

A group of smiling people standing together

Iryna with pharmacy student Pablo Hidalgo and his family.

Iryna lived with a local family of a pharmacy student Pablo Hidalgo and worked in two community pharmacies: Farmacia Vargas, one in a wealthy part in Belen and one in a poorer part in San Rafael. Both were owned by a pharmacist named Tony Vargas. Iryna shadowed OTC consults and participated in some of the unique services Costa Rican pharmacists offer, like blood pressure measurement and consults and intramuscular injections.

“Many medications in Costa Rica are given via IM injection in the gluteus medius,” she says. “This was a big change for me, and I quickly saw what a difference that made in the patient’s relationship with the pharmacist – they had to be so trusting, to be in a vulnerable position like that with their pharmacist.”

The language barrier challenged Iryna as well. She learned some Spanish prior to her trip, but often conversations between the pharmacist and patients or between health-care providers went very quickly.

“Google Translate was my friend,” she says. “It was a great tool for reading drug monographs in real time. Patients and staff were also very patient and encouraging. It was scary to a certain extent, and I had to get creative using non-verbal communication at times.”

Exterior shot of Farmacia Vargas, a community pharmacy in Belen

Exterior shot of Farmacia Vargas, a community pharmacy in Belen

Days in the pharmacy were busy for Iryna and full of laughs with patients and pharmacists and small quizzes from her preceptors.

“This experience taught me that there is so much value in seeing different communities and cultures,” she says. “It’s easy to get complacent practicing pharmacy every day in Canada. But seeing the incredible role pharmacists play here and how their health system is structured in a way where everyone can access medications – it made me pause and reflect on how we can make our system better.”

After work, she got to know her host family and saw the city and local sites with them. Memorable moments include a nine-kilometer hike in Hacienda La Chimba in Santa Ana, a visit to Starbucks Coffee Farm, Volcan Irazu, and travelling to meet with an acro-yoga group. Iryna, an acrobat herself, learned new techniques from the local group at Casa Senda Wellness Center in San Jose.

“The fears you don’t face become your limits,” Iryna says to anyone considering an exchange. “We are creatures of habit, but travelling and seeing pharmacy abroad puts us outside comfort zone to make use grow and can be life changing.  It encouraged me to reflect on my own values and to think about how I can get involved in international pharmacy relations.”

Current SEP programming allows CAPSI members to go on exchanges even two years after they graduate.

“The SEP is incredibly well organized and there are officers responsible for every participating country,” she says. “They find accommodations and preceptors, and there is support for students throughout. I really encourage you to think about going. My trip will always be a reminder of pura vida, and the idea that it’s the simple things that can bring so much joy.”

A collage of photos of Iryna at the pharmacy, with coworkers and enjoying local food

Iryna in the pharmacy where she worked, with pharmacy coworkers and enjoying local desserts.