MISSOULA – Shelby Brooks realized she might be making a difference while shopping at the Forsyth grocery store and heard someone say, “That’s the girl who gave me my shingles shot.”
It was true. Brooks, a fourth-year Doctor of Pharmacy student at the University of Montana, recently completed a six-week internship at Yellowstone Pharmacy on Forsyth’s Main Street. As part of that experience, she gave lots of shots to an aging farm and ranch community of 1,500 people in eastern Montana.
“At UM, they teach you about the drugs and how they work – side effects and all those things,” Brooks said. “But there are a lot of other aspects, like how to run a pharmacy, insurance and management, that I’ve been exposed to here. It’s so cool to see how it all comes together, and I’ve had lots of patient interaction.”
She admits to some culture shock. Forsyth is a scenic little town 443 miles from UM’s Missoula campus. Situated along Interstate 94 and the Yellowstone River, it’s a place of badlands and sagebrush. She claims the temperature hit 116 one day. Though she has family in Helena, Brooks herself hails from Truckee, California, a mountain town on the Nevada border not far from Lake Tahoe.
“Truckee is small, but Forsyth is smaller,” she laughs. “Everybody here knows everybody, and it wasn’t long before they started calling me ‘California.’”
Despite the gentle ribbing, Forsyth and Yellowstone Pharmacy taught Brooks a lot. She would handle drug-information questions – doing research, reading studies, writing it all up and submitting it. She gave shingles shots. She assisted with a diabetes education program spearheaded by her “preceptor” Leanna Schwend, a 2011 UM graduate who manages the pharmacy and is the daughter of owner Neil Donner.
“The preceptor is the person looking after you,” Brooks said. “I can do pretty much everything a pharmacist can do except check a prescription that goes out the door. Leanna signed off on my hours and watched me the entire time and made sure I’m doing the right things.”
For her part, Schwend said it was wonderful having a fourth-year pharmacy student in Forsyth, where her family has operated the pharmacy for nearly four decades.
“We don’t get too many on this side of the state,” she said. “Students bring a refreshing sense of enthusiasm. They also provide a wealth of new knowledge, and sometimes they know more about the new medicines than we do.”
“It’s been pretty cool,” Brooks said. “I worked with all three pharmacists, so I learned a little bit from each of them, and then the pharmacy technicians are super helpful, too. There are some things you don’t really learn in the classroom, necessarily. It’s different reading about it in a textbook and then actually applying that information to people who are going to take these meds.”
She said small-town pharmacies like the one is Forsyth are vitally important. They often provide the only option for their clients, so they can’t turn away customers like pharmacies can in larger communities – even if they lose money on certain medications.
“That’s why that gift shop at the front of the store is so important,” she said. “It helps them recoup the costs for certain medications. They also bring in revenue from programs like diabetes education, and they provide medications to the nursing home and local clinic. It was interesting to see how the business model worked in a smaller town.”
Pharmacy students in UM’s doctoral program spend much of their fourth year interning at various locales across Montana. Students can request locations, and Brooks targeted areas where she could stay with friends. Luckily, she had a friend in far-off Forsyth whose mother, Holley Marcy, happened to be a pharmacist at Yellowstone Pharmacy.
“It’s been a lot of couch surfing,” she said. “People have been so generous, and I’ve saved a lot on rent. The Marcy ranch is a 15-minute drive from town. They’ve taught me how to dock sheep, and we are branding tonight.”
Brooks said UM pharmacy students complete three-week rotations during the summers to get exposed to the profession, and last year she did a hospital rotation in Miles City, located 41 miles down I-90 from Forsyth. It gave her a first taste of eastern Montana, as she commuted to work from the Marcy ranch.
After Forsyth, Brooks will complete rotations in Missoula and Helena. Next February she will work at a Veterans Affairs facility in Helena and then in Bozeman at a compounding pharmacy, which can customize medications for patients based on their individual needs. Other UM Pharm.D. students also are interning across Big Sky Country – from St. Ignatius to Boulder and Glendive.
Why attend the Doctor of Pharmacy Program at UM’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy? The average entry-level pharmacist salary is $126,000, and UM graduates have a 97% graduate employment rate. UM also is ranked No. 2 nationally for graduate debt-to-income ratio. The program accepts about 60 students each year.
“As a six-year program, it’s one of the quickest ways to a doctorate,” Brooks said. “You also get your white coat when you start pharmacy school during a special ceremony. It’s kind of like an initiation. You say the oath of the pharmacist and wear that white coat to lab and all your rotations – it goes with you everywhere.”
Pharm.D. students also are a tight-knit group.
“We study all the time, so I’ve found we don’t really have much time to hang out with those outside the pharmacy school,” she said. “We definitely get together with one another when we can, so you get close.”
She said the pandemic put a damper on much of that socializing, but it also gave her the experience of administering COVID-19 vaccines with UM’s Curry Health Center. But she’s ready for a return to a more-normal semester this fall. Brooks will graduate in May 2022 and intends to stay in Montana.
“It’s kind of far-fetched, but I actually would like to start a compounding pharmacy,” she said. “Maybe in the future.”
And if she wound up in a small town like Forsyth?
“I think I’d be fine with that,” she said. “Everyone is just so community-orientated, and there is always something going on there. And everyone needs a pharmacy.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.