A pharmacy professor helps get reliable health care to people who need it most.
Ronald Herman’s travels have taken him to a prison in Zambia, where he dispensed basic medicines and witnessed the worst human suffering. He’s given vitamins to women in a small Afghan village, where burkas covered so much skin that he could hardly distinguish between a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old.
No matter where in the world the University of Iowa pharmacy professor finds himself, he witnesses a common sentiment among the people he encounters—deep gratitude for his work.
“You see how bad people can have things, but also how appreciative they can be,” Herman says of the medical mission trips he’s taken over the years. “For example, every day at the prison in Zambia, we were greeted by a group of inmates singing, welcoming us. It was amazing.”
Herman, clinical associate professor in the College of Pharmacy and director of the Iowa Drug Information Network, always knew he wanted to do work that made an impact on an international level.
After earning his master’s degree in hospital/clinical pharmacy from The University of Iowa in 1978, he and wife Beverly—a staff nurse at UI Hospitals and Clinics—spent six years training health care workers through nonprofit Campus Crusade for Christ in Bophuthatswana, the South African tribal homeland.
He returned to Iowa to earn his PhD, later joining the faculty at the UI Hospitals and Clinics Burn Treatment Center. In 2001, he became director of the Iowa Drug Information Network, part of the College of Pharmacy’s Division of Drug Information Service, which supports pharmacists working in the field.
The database produced by the Drug Information Service has an international reputation. So Herman has traveled and welcomed guests from around the world, training others to use the database and to operate their own drug information centers.
He also got involved with the Christian Pharmacists Fellowship International, chairing its missions committee. Seeking opportunities to help the underserved internationally, the group partnered with Global Health Outreach (GHO), a collaboration of several Christian health care associations.
Each year, GHO sends about 50 teams of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, and other health care workers to locations around the globe, providing a host of basic medical and dental services to the people who need them most.
Herman helps recruit pharmacists for the GHO trips. About 70 pharmacists accompany the groups each year, compared with just four in the early years of organized trips.
“I’ve had the opportunity to influence a lot of people and get them excited about thinking beyond their normal comfort zones,” Herman says. “It’s fun for me to see how other pharmacists are impacted by the people we serve.”
In addition to three trips to Zambia and two to Afghanistan, Herman has traveled to Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In summer 2008, he accompanied a group of about 30 American volunteers on a two-week trip to Nairobi, Kenya. There, the group of physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and logistics staff spent one week running a medical clinic in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, and another at a school.
Each day, hundreds of people lined up for hours to be seen by the American health care workers. Working largely without electricity or modern medical diagnostic tools, the group treated about 330 patients and filled about 720 prescriptions each day. A busy pharmacy in the United States typically fills about 200 prescriptions a day.
Medications are provided for free or for a minimal fee. In Kenya, Herman and his team of pharmacists dispensed prescriptions to treat and prevent common ailments, from vitamins and malaria drops to hydration packets and antibiotics.
The key to successful trips is partnering with medical professionals on the ground who can treat chronically ill patients once the GHO team is gone, Herman says. It doesn’t do any good to give someone a week’s worth of HIV drugs, for instance.
Patients seek out the American clinics because health care workers like Herman can be trusted to offer high-quality care in countries where health care is otherwise expensive or unreliable.
“You’re glad to be able to do it,” Herman says. “It’s personally rewarding to meet the needs of people who would be struggling and suffering.”
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Portrait by Tom Jorgensen
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