BY LEANN DILBECK –
Pharmacists play such an important role in helping people heal and maintain a good quality of life. Many times, they are able to answer health-related questions — what foods, drinks, activities, or other drugs could have an effect on medication or what to do about a missed dose. Essentially, pharmacists help people with almost anything related to the use of medicines, which means they help people to stay as healthy as possible. For Lauren (Gaston) Willis, Healthy Connections, Inc.’s pharmacist, learning to “doctor” through meds began on the farm, and little did she know then, would turn into a full-time calling.
Lauren grew up in Oden on her family’s farm, “We raised cattle, chickens, and horses. My dad was and still is my hero, so I spent a lot of time with him ‘doctoring’ the livestock. Unbeknownst to me, that was where my journey to a career in pharmacy started. For several years, I wanted to become a veterinarian, because I was so intrigued by how medicine worked. I wanted to know why we gave a shot of “x” for a calf with pneumonia, or a shot of “y” when we vaccinated the herd, and how those shots given in the muscle would work on specific areas of the body.”
As a teenager, Lauren babysat for Laura Wagner, the owner of Mount Ida Pharmacy, who may have played more of an instrumental role in Lauren’s life than she may have realized. “I always looked up to her and was inspired by how she took such good care of people. She was kind enough to let me shadow her, and as I saw how much impact she had on her patient’s lives, I started looking at pharmacy as a career choice.”
Lauren attended college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “I had always been interested in animal science and the medications used to treat animals, so… with animal science and agriculture playing such a large part in my life, I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Education, Communication, and Technology, graduating Suma Cum Laude in 2006.”
Graduating at the top of her class at U of A was a ‘game changer,’ according to Lauren because it gave her the confidence to consider tackling the rigorous pharmaceutical program. “After weighing, analyzing, discussing, & praying over my options of what I could do with my life, the one option that remained constant in my mind was pharmacy. That seed was planted during my childhood, fostered by my education, brought to light by my chemistry professor at U of A during my sophomore year, and realized as obtainable after graduating.”
During the year after completing college, Laura met her husband, Jeff. “He listened to me while I voiced my desire and reluctance to go back to school and he helped me realize that pharmacy was where I had always wanted to be. He fully believed in me and with his support and support from my family, I went full force down the path to becoming a pharmacist. I started pharmacy school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 2008, and after 4 grueling, sleep-deprived, wrinkle-inducing years, and the support from my family, I graduated in 2012, as a Doctor of Pharmacy.”
During her journey to becoming a pharmacist, the couple started a family. “Jeff and I got married in 2008. Our daughter, Landri, was born in 2009, and our son, Cooper, came along in 2013.” Always a dedicated student, Lauren barely paused long enough to give birth, “Landri was born 2 days before spring semester finals of my first year at pharmacy school. While in the early stages of labor, I tried convincing my doctor I could make it to take my last test, promising I would be right back! She said ‘no!’ Jeff worked “on the road” for Kansas City Southern Railways and spent most of my school years in northern Missouri or southern Illinois, driving in every weekend to spend time with us. We look back now and have no clue how we made it! We have land and cattle in Little River County, but it has always been our dream to come back to this area.”
Lauren finds her career choice more than satisfying, “Pharmacy is both challenging and rewarding, but now that I have been practicing pharmacy for several years, I know this is where I was meant to be. I always wanted to work as a clinical pharmacist, but feared the advancements in this field would not be realized in rural Arkansas for many years. However, Healthy Connections was able to see where pharmacy is going and recognize the need for a clinic pharmacy to expand the care we provide to this community. When the Director of Pharmacy position was offered to me, I jumped at the chance! I want to be a part of the change and the advancement of patient care in our area. Pharmacy is always changing, and our job is so much more than counting pills. We have clinical role with emphasis on patient care, education, and communication with providers to streamline care. We are the most accessible health care professional, which provides us a great opportunity to help patients get the care they need. In the future, you will still see pharmacists in the pharmacy, but you will likely also have appointments with a pharmacist, similar to a doctor’s office. Oftentimes, we are the only common factor between the patient and all of their providers. Therefore, we are often working to correlate care and ensure everyone on the patient’s health care team is on the same page.”
When given the opportunity, Lauren enjoys speaking with kids about medication abuse and misuse. It always amazes and terrifies me what kids will try and how little they know about the dangers of those decisions.
The career is more than demanding but Lauren is able to see the big picture and steps up to the daily demands of such an important and crucial role. “Days are busy, hectic at times, and physically and mentally demanding. We get few bathroom breaks, and no lunch breaks. We live in a fast-paced world, where everyone wants everything now. At times, it gets frustrating when it feels like patients have to be convinced to let us help them, that there are medications and interactions that can kill them, and health care is not something to rush through.” But she continued, “Then there are days you know you made a difference and patients who are appreciative of the care we provide. Whether we prevent an interaction, find ways to save patients’ money, help them understand their medications, or save their life, we are reminded why we do what we do. I truly enjoy taking care of people and hope that their interactions with me at the pharmacy make their day a little bit better. We live in a great community & I am honored to be a part of it!”