College of Medicine and Dentistry News & Stories Helicopters and health logistics: A JCU pharmacy graduate’s adventures with the Australian Defence Force

Helicopters and health logistics: A JCU pharmacy graduate’s adventures with the Australian Defence Force

Mon, 27 Apr 2020

As a JCU pharmacy student, Tamara Lee had no idea of the places that her career would take her.  In fact, it was Tamara’s mum who first suggested that she explore what the Australian Defence Force (ADF) could offer to a pharmacy student.

“I went into the Army recruiting office and enquired about Army pharmacy but they said ‘we don’t do farming’. When we got that cleared up, I ended up getting an ADF scholarship at the end of my third year of JCU pharmacy studies”, said Tamara.

The scholarship meant that Tamara’s course fees and textbook costs were covered by the ADF, an annual stipend to cover living costs as a student was also provided. An added bonus was when the ADF helped to place Tamara at Sydney’s Royal Prince Albert Hospital for her fourth year internship, an experience that Tamara relished.

“The army organised my intern year, and I couldn't have asked for a better hospital. It’s very much a training teaching hospital so I got to see a really broad spectrum that I would never have seen in a lot of other hospitals”, said Tamara.

Upon completing her intern year and graduating from JCU in 2003, Tamara went straight into army officer training at Duntroon and then began her logistics training in health ‘materiel’, a term which refers to the medical and pharmaceutical supplies and equipment as needed by the military.

The supply management of health materiel has since become a specialisation for Tamara, and one which has taken her across the globe. Tamara’s first overseas deployment was to Pakistan for a humanitarian aid mission in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. “Flying around the Himalayas, up in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, in Black Hawk helicopters is definitely a career highlight”, said Tamara.

Another highlight that came from this experience was Tamara’s involvement with the World Health Organisation’s development of an emergency health kit for use in natural disasters. The kit includes enough medicines, disposables and medical equipment to cover the basic health needs of 10,000 people for three months, and is used by United Nations agencies as well as other aid agencies.

After Pakistan and a stint spent working at the ADF medical warehouse in Sydney, Tamara took up an opportunity to learn from the US Army.  “They sent me to the US to a medical school to study health logistics for three months, and then to do one month of on the job training at the US Army medical materiel agency,” said Tamara. “Working with the Americans was another highlight. They're just so big, the experience is phenomenal.”

Despite her growing expertise in health materiel logistics, Tamara still wanted to keep her clinical skills up-to-date, and so took some time out from the Army to work in a community health centre. “Although the ADF does support us to do up to four weeks every year in a hospital setting, I wanted to gain more clinical experience and be eligible for accreditation with ACCP (Australian Association of Consultant Pharmacy),” said Tamara.

Then the Army offered Tamara a position too good to refuse, coordinating the start-up of up two navy hospitals on board the newly commissioned aircraft carriers HMAS Adelaide and the HMAS Canberra. “A lot of the work was liaising with all the specialists that come on the ship, such as surgeons and anaesthetists, as to what supplies they would need and then managing that for up to 1400 personnel”, said Tamara.

More senior roles soon followed, this time based in Canberra where Tamara was responsible for assigning priority to the procurement of health supplies across all sections of the ADF - army, navy, air force and garrison. “I essentially managed all the money for all of our health capabilities and I would make the decisions on what was the highest priority for them to purchase”.

Further studies followed, with Tamara completing a Master of Public Health, and subsequently being promoted to Senior Army Pharmacist. And then the time was right for another overseas posting. An invitation to join the US Navy with their Pacific Partnerships mission had Tamara travelling to Palau and the islands of Micronesia, providing health support to the local hospitals and clinics.

A six month posting to the Middle East then soon followed, with the Army’s Combat Health Battalion located in the United Arab Emirates.  “I was the pharmacist in support of the entire Middle East region. I would take requests from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other small regional operations, such as in South Sudan, and send pharmaceuticals, equipment, and consumables to all these places.”

However, some visits to war zones such as Kabul and Baghdad were also included but fortunately the visits were short and well-supported. “We are sent there with the best equipment and the best protection and it’s not like we are there by ourselves”, said Tamara.  “In Kabul, we had a Coalition force of about 5000 personnel and they kept us out of harm’s way”.

For now, Tamara is happy to be back in a Canberra based role. She admits that although Army life can be tough on family life, it is still worth it. “All your colleagues become very much like your family. Especially when you’re deployed together, you become quite close and supportive of each other.”

While a career with the Australian Defence Force may not suit every pharmacy student, there are still many opportunities to be had part-time, by joining the Army Reserve. “You can work on projects from joint health commands or help with research into submissions. There’s plenty of reserve work around for interested pharmacy students.”

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