MISSOULA – The trick to a good shot is one swift movement, said Travis Schweer, a University of Montana pharmacy student.
“The entire process has to be fluid, almost graceful – you can’t be nervous – so that you don’t scare yourself or the patient,” Schweer said.
The third-year UM pharmacy student from Collbran, Colorado, would know what it takes to deliver a safe and effective vaccine. Volunteering to immunize UM and Missoula-area community members against COVID-19, Schweer is one of several UM pharmacy doctoral students administering hundreds of vaccine doses by the week. The student-run committee named Operation: Immunization handles the organizing and scheduling of vaccination clinics and ensures phased delivery of the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer is as efficient and safe as possible.
Led by UM pharmacy students and Ken Chatriand, manager of the UM Pharmacy and coordinator of community pharmacy practice experiences, UM students are on the frontlines – at the very front of the line, masked-up, with needles, syringes and swabs to put their clinical training to use in real time against COVID-19. Their efforts also are supported by the UM chapter of the American Pharmacists Association.
The pharmacy students are trained and certified as pharmacy-based immunizers in their first two weeks of the University’s four-year pharmacy doctoral degree, housed in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy in UM’s College of Health.
“I never would have thought in 100 years that a global pandemic would hit while I was in school, studying to practice in health care,” Schweer said. “I guess it gives new meaning to hands-on training. And I’m really glad we’re able to step-up and extend the health care reach into our community in these trying times.”
Schweer said he volunteers what little time he has in between classes, fatherhood and working nearly full-time at the Walmart Pharmacy in Missoula to help with vaccine clinics on campus and around town.
“There was an email sent out to pharmacy classmates asking if anyone had the time or interest to help,” he said. “UM feels like a small, tight community, especially in my pharmacy class. It just felt natural to help – to be there with a skill that we are trained in and to provide that service.”
Providing expertise in the middle of the biggest pandemic of the century is exactly the kind of role UM pharmacy can fill, said Marketa Marvanova, dean of the Skaggs School of Pharmacy.
“Pharmacists can play a really significant role in preventative care and population health, not only during a pandemic but also with annual vaccinations when we have vaccine-preventable diseases under control,” Marvanova said. “Right now, we do not have one infectious disease under control. Providing immunizations is a way to contribute the knowledge, skills and abilities of our students and the greater profession of pharmacy, to become part of the solution.”
Marvanova said the University’s Doctor of Pharmacy program specifically trains and certifies all enrolled pharmacy students on immunizations early in program so they are prepared early for clinical experiences.
“We enable our students to have a lot of experience in vaccinations, and that is an attribute that has allowed these wonderfully passionate students to be a critical force in managing COVID-19 locally,” she said.
Stepping-up to serve when called is natural to Nate Bennett. The Army National Guard veteran, third-year UM pharmacy student and committee chair of Operation: Immunization said he can’t quite guesstimate how many vaccinations he’s administered in the last month, but that it’s been a lot.
“We’ve been working closely with the University’s Incident Command Team, Missoula City-County Health Department and, of course, the UM Pharmacy and students to be a solution to the problem,” Bennett said.
Leading and organizing the vaccinations and flu clinics reflects Bennett’s training in the Army National Guard, skills he said he applies to balancing his coursework and duties in the PharmD program. He said “being actively engaged” not only helps build resumes, it also provides an opportunity for “practice making perfect.”
Bennett said working closely alongside Chatriand has provided him an up-close lens into the life of a pharmacist, a connection between clinical training and coursework and one-on-one mentoring.
Chatriand took notice of Bennett’s penchant for communication and people skills during the vaccination clinics, and recommended Bennett speak to a UM pharmacy alumnus who specializes in ambulatory pharmacy care – a specialized discipline of pharmacy that addresses outpatient medication needs and develops sustained relationships with patients.
The field requires an advanced two-years of additional clinical training, and specialized programs boast an extremely competitive acceptance rate, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Ken noticed I like talking with patients and helped me see that I can extend my career path in a specialized nature,” he said. “Thanks to Ken, I now have that connection and interest in ambulatory pharmacy that I’m actively pursuing.”
Bennett said he plans one day to practice ambulatory care for veteran populations and feels “extremely well prepared” from UM’s pharmacy program, citing the program’s interprofessional collaboration and overall affordability.
When he placed the call for fellow students interested in helping with the vaccine clinics, Bennett was moved by the response.
“I think most of us are looking at this moment not only to practice and refine our skills, but to truly be of service as pharmacists-in-training,” he said. “It will be wild looking back on this one day.”