In March, two Waterloo Pharmacy students moved from Kitchener to Manitoulin Island where they joined health care teams for their six-month clinical placements. The rotation would be the last hurdle of their pharmacy education.

Melanie and Taylor at one of their practice sites on Manitoulin island.

Taylor (right) and Melanie (second from the right) at one of their practice site locations on Manitoulin Island. See the presentation document they prepared on their experiences (PDF).

For Melanie Sanderson the relocation marked her first experience living and working in a rural community. For Taylor Geertsema, moving to Manitoulin was a return home. Geertsema’s mother has owned and operated a pharmacy in Gore Bay on the Island’s north shore for 27 years, and Taylor was born at Manitoulin Health Centre, the Island’s only facility with labour and delivery facilities.

Taylor and friend fishing
“I love the community environment on Manitoulin,” reflects Geertsema. “I love that I can walk down the streets of Gore Bay and know almost everyone I meet. This translates to the pharmacy environment as well: you’re not only the pharmacist, you’re also their friend.”

“For me,” says Sanderson, “I was drawn to the opportunity to work in a small community, to work with a large Indigenous population, and to have a physician - instead of a pharmacist - be my mentor. It was a pleasure to witness the strong connection health care providers have with their patients on the Island.”

Both students took every chance to participate in community and cultural events like medicine walks and to attend instructive conferences on topics like Residential Schools and Victims’ Justice.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to become immersed in the Anishinabek culture and to learn about the critical role of connection. Your connection with your own spirit, your connection to Mother Earth, and your connection to those around you.

Melanie Sanderson

Four students on a medicine walk in a field
These lessons in Indigenous culture were valuable for the students, and they often discussed both Western and traditional medications with their patients. They also attended a session to learn about the Seven Grandfather teachings which value love, respect, honesty, bravery, humility, truth, and wisdom.

“I believe we’re all in search of balancing these things,” says Sanderson. “The teachings have similarities to the OCP Code of Ethics and the oath we took as pharmacy students at the start of our education. Looking to the future, I hope to embody these characteristics as a pharmacist and also as a person.”

For Geertsema, returning to her hometown at the end of her pharmacy education meant she could contribute to her community in new ways.

“In a given week, I find myself in any or all of these locations: the community pharmacy, the hospital, the family health team, the long-term care home,” she says. “For the student on this rotation, autonomy is essential. I’ve had to learn to my trust myself, and to seek out my own opportunities to use my skills to benefit patients. There isn’t always a pharmacist overseeing your work.”

At the community pharmacy, Geertsema was able to put her education on substance dependence into action dispensing suboxone and methadone. These are medications used to help wean patients off opioids.

“Unfortunately, many of the patients that use this service have a bad impression of the health care system. As the pharmacy student, I’m able to see these patients every day to dispense their medications and am able to develop relationships with them. Through this, the patient begins to put their trust back into the healthcare system and we can work together to better their health.”

For both students, the rural setting meant that they were often working without a pharmacist present. This required independence and also demonstrated the value of effective collaboration with the health care team.

I could turn to any member of my team when I had questions. The physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses were all extremely involved and helped my development.

Taylor Geertsema

The health care team at one of the practice site locations on Manitoulin Island

“Working primarily with the physicians at the family health team, I’ve come to realize how important trusting and respectful relationships are,” added Sanderson.

“I think this experience came at the perfect time,” she continues. “I’ve been able to reflect on my pharmacy education as a whole and my time on Manitoulin has given me guidance to make decisions for my future. The community saying that ‘we’re on Island time’ couldn't be truer, and I find that I’ve been able to take a step back and revel in this experience and to take it as a life lesson going forward.”

Sunset over a lake