By Peter Halstead, Senior Pharmacist, APC

I've worked with the Australian Pharmacy Council (APC) for 20 years - 10 years in a voluntary capacity, 10 years employed. APC is about helping people move forward, and I've been so lucky as to hear the journeys they've been on - from cousins of Kings to fleeing strife torn nations. I wanted to provide some examples of these stories. But first, forgive me as I initially provide some context.

Uprooting oneself and moving a great distance from all you have known is something I have experienced. I can still vividly remember as a fourteen-year-old the fear, anger and desperation I felt on being told that my family were moving 5,000 kilometres across the nation from Sydney to Perth. Despite the first-class rail travel on the Indian Pacific to Perth, the provision of a beautiful company home on the magnificent Swan river, the freedom from any financial concerns and access to a very well equipped and descent private school, the emotional trauma was considerable.

So, when asked some 20 odd years later to assist with advising and examining some overseas-trained pharmacists I thought yes, I wanted to be involved. And rather arrogantly and naively I believed I might make a difference having some insight into their journey. Fast forward 25 years and here are some stories about overseas-trained pharmacists with whom I have engaged.

I leave it to you to decide as to who is making the difference.

Fleeing danger

The first time I knew how lucky I was to live in Australia was when I was asked to support a pharmacist from a strife torn African nation who was seeking to register in Australia. He had spent five years travelling to Australia from his homeland with time spent in various refugee camps in Africa and Asia before he and his wife and their five children were granted permission to settle in Australia. He had been the equivalent of a provincial health minister but had fallen foul of the national authorities during the strife that had befallen his homeland. I only came to know this when he was sitting opposite from me at a desk and I noticed one hand had no fingernails, he informed me this was as a result of having been tortured before has was permitted to leave his homeland.

Some years after he registered as a pharmacist in Australia I unexpectedly received a phone call and he informed me he was in country having recently returned to his homeland to assist in its rebuilding. He had called me to ask if I had access to any out-of-date text books? The institution offering training to pharmacists in his country had no reference material at all - a result of the conflict only recently resolved.

There was no doubt in my mind he remained at significant personal risk and I was in awe of his courage.

A father's commitment

Then there was the pharmacist from Bhutan. He was the cousin of the King of Bhutan who had asked/directed he and his brother (a doctor) go to different western nations to study and work in the various health care systems. On returning it was hoped that Bhutan and its eight hundred thousand people may benefit from their experiences. The pharmacist came to Australia while his brother went to England.

Four years on and having registered and worked in Australia the Bhutanese pharmacist had been recalled and he came to see me to say farewell. During the goodbyes I asked what he was most looking forward to on returning home? He nonchalantly said it was to see his three and a half-year-old son whom he had never seen. That is a level of commitment to admire and respect. As he walked out the door, and to this day I have not been able to decide if he was joking, he asked me to come and say hello, at the royal palace, next time I was visiting Bhutan.

Comfort of safety

During a farewell a husband and wife visited before departing for a regional centre where they had bought a pharmacy. Both were Doctors of Pharmacy in their homeland situated in the Middle East and both had gone on to earn PhDs. They had the misfortune to be born members of a persecuted minority and had been granted permission to migrate to Australia. Not unexpectedly they had both become registered pharmacists in Australia without a lot of fuss.

As they sat there and said their good byes I asked what they most enjoyed about coming to Australia. Was it the beaches? Was it the lifestyle? Was it the access to services? The husband said yes with his heavily pregnant wife nodding in agreement. However, his wife then went on to say that by far the greatest gift in migrating was the daily feeling of safety, their children did not wake up to gun fire or have the potential to see their parents removed from their home for interrogation by the security services.

This was said in a quite respectful manner without rage and with humility and dignity. From that point I have made a conscious effort in my life to think about context before again posing that question.

Life is for living

Finally, I want to mention the single parent from Eastern Europe. She approached APC to seek advice on the process for becoming registered in Australia and I asked her background. She informed me she had qualified as a pharmacist in her homeland but five to six years ago she had fled to Australia with her children. Since arriving she had been working as a pharmacy technician at a major teaching hospital. She now felt her English language skills had progressed to the point where she stood a chance of registering as a pharmacist.

She and her children had fled having suffered domestic violence which at the time was not treated in a serious manner in her homeland. She knew in her bones as she put it, that if they did not leave great danger would be their daily companion. She had had zero engagement with her former life since departing. What had occupied her efforts since leaving her homeland was a drive to demonstrate to her children that life was for living and they had to get on with confronting its challenges. Her strength of character in the face of adversity took my breath away.

The difference

Through APC I have spoken to hundreds of internationally qualified pharmacists and I am being absolutely honest when I say I cannot remember one conversation where someone has focussed on their past and 'what might have been'. Indeed, there has been no evidence of looking back. And in my opinion one reason could be time, or the lack of it to be more precise. What comes to matter to these courageous, committed, highly educated and strong people is looking forward.

The question for them becomes what is to be the difference they will make for themselves, for their families and for the people around them in the time in front of them?

Having gathered my thoughts during the process it is absolutely clear to me who is making the difference. And APC can be and should be proud of its contribution to that across its forty years.

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