By Darren Lum
Getting experience as a pharmacist assistant through the co-op placement at Shoppers Drug Mart in Haliburton has given Alyssa Morissette the reassurance to pursue her goal of becoming a pharmacist.
The Grade 12 Haliburton Highlands Secondary School student is one of dozens of students this year fulfilling co-op placements throughout the Highlands. She said getting into the pharmacy field was about fulfilling a desire to work in the healthcare field and was also a position she could be comfortable with.
“So, I started researching jobs that don’t involve blood and having to do that stuff because I don’t like that. Pharmacy caught my eye. That would be interesting. I get to work with medications [rather] than on people … I did a ton of research, and I was like, ‘yeah, I’m very interested in this. We should try this out,’” she said.
Alyssa said she’s familiar with the co-op programming because her father is the high school co-op coordinator. She had intended to complete her placement last year, but that was put on hold because of the pandemic, which resulted in students learning remotely to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
She said if she was prevented from completing her co-op placement this year, she would have had lingering questions before she left high school.
“Is this really what I want to do? And I’d also be going in blind. I’d have none of what I just learned. I can’t imagine if I didn’t know this stuff,” she said.
With the quadmester, students are taking two classes in one block of time, so when Alyssa was setting up her placement worth one credit, she knew it was actually going to be a half day. She said this worked out in her favour, giving her more time for her placement.
“Students like me, who are in a bunch of academic courses and need these courses all through the year we don’t have time for a two-credit, or a four-credit co-op. But we can fit one-credits normally, but this one credit I get half a day instead of one period, so it’s awesome, yeah,” she said.
The longer co-op placement broadens her understanding. Alyssa’s duties during her placement, which ended a few weeks ago, were filling prescriptions, working with others, following directions, serving the public, and operating the cash register. She also had the opportunity to observe vaccinations being administered and COVID-19 tests being performed.
Being behind the counter has provided a more nuanced picture of the pharmacy industry than the Grade 12 student ever thought was possible.
“I had my idea of pharmacy, like, ‘Oh, yeah. We distribute the medications. We check them.’ All of this kind of stuff and then when I got here there is so much more that everyone does. And also there are so many more positions within the pharmacy that I had no idea about. Like the technician for example. I didn’t really know what her role was when I came in here,” she said.
A technician performs more tasks than do assistants helping the pharmacist in non-clinical ways. They can give injections (after taking a course), they can look at the medications and make sure they cross-reference with information on the computer, and they can verify the directions typed into the computer correspond to what the physician wrote on the prescription. A major difference is a pharmacist will have completed four more years of education. The education enables pharmacists, who put in the time and effort to know about new medications, to not just identify, but be able to dispense, offer “clinical” consultation about new medications and determine what is most suitable for a patient’s particular diagnosis.
It’s important students don’t just take a co-op placement for the sake of it, Alyssa said. Get invested and do something that is of interest.
“Don’t just take co-op because you’re bored and you don’t want to be in a class and want to get out of the school. Make sure it’s something you’re interested in so that you can know it’s, ‘I want to go to school for that,’ or, ‘I absolutely hate that and never want to do that again,’” she said. “I’ve done co-op placements in a class as well and, no, that’s not for me. I never want to be a teacher, but I know that now.”
Putting forth your best self at a placement is essential, whether you like the placement or not, she said.
“Even if you don’t like it. I did not like the peer teacher thing, but I still went and tried my best, so that I could make my employer happy, right, because they’re volunteering their time to let me do their placement. They’re not getting paid. They didn’t have to do that, but they’re nice to do it, so you show up and work hard,” she said.
Pharmacist Aimee Mansfield, a Haliburton Highlands Secondary School alumna, welcomed the chance to help a local student.
“It’s amazing to give them some input. She now can tell if she is going to enjoy doing this line of work or if she is interested in learning more of this type of work. It’s nice to be able to give a positive influence on how they’re thinking, or how their education is going to go,” she said. “Basically, have somebody step right into the job kind of helps them decide. It’s nice to help them do that and do different things,” she said.
There wasn’t a pharmacy co-op placement available for her when she was in high school, she said, and she wishes there was.
“Not knowing much about it when you first walk into the course can be really daunting. So, it’s really nice to see behind the scenes and know (a) how much work you’re going to put into things and (b) how you deal with the public, how you deal with physicians. It’s a whole different experience. A lot of people think it’s easy to work back here, but you have to be pretty bright and on the ball. [Problem solving skills are important] and there are a lot of little things to remember. Alyssa has caught on really well,” she said.
Mansfield has told Alyssa about how the job requires lifelong learning, including reading and investigating new drugs.
She said there have been six placements at the current location and at the previous location on Maple Avenue before the move to Highlands Street.
Mansfield appreciated being able to help and be an example for Alyssa, showing it’s possible to work in your chosen field in Haliburton.
“It was a big deal for me to come back home and actually build a career here. I love living in this area, so it’s nice to be able to influence people in high school right now to think about coming back here and to show them there are jobs you can have after university. I think there are a lot of people that think, ‘Oh, it’s small town. I’m not going to go back there. I’m just going to stay [where I studied] and boost [my] career,’” she said.
Alyssa’s placement went so well she was offered a job as a pharmacist assistant.
She’s had to turn them down because of the demands of a full course load this semester.
“I said I may come back here and may see if there is an opportunity in the summer and something like that,” she said. “It made me feel like I did a good job. I lived up to their standards.”
The placement helped with her anxieties about choosing a career.
“Being in here has given me the closure that, I like this. I enjoy this. It’s not like I’m dreading to come in and do this every day. I want to come and do this. So, it’s just given me closure. Yes, this is the right decision for me, which I needed,” she said.
To become a pharmacist, one needs to complete four years of undergraduate studies followed by an additional two years at pharmacy school, she said.
“My first day in here I was extremely overwhelmed. I was just watching and taking it all in. Like, I don’t know any of this. But now when they talk about these processes, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that. I watched that. Oh, yeah, this pharmacist has told me how to do this’ and I remember that, right? I just get to take it with me, and I just stay comfortable,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of high school students do this, but I feel like I’m a step ahead. Like one of the pharmacists here said he never did any of this and went into it blindly. He had no idea … He just felt really behind [at first]. It keeps me comfortable.”
Although Alyssa was intrigued by the other positions in the pharmacy department, she hasn’t deviated from her goal to become a pharmacist.
“I want the responsibility. I know I should be able to achieve that so I’m like, go big, or go home,” she said.