Crossed off my Rockies Bucket List: HI-Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel

My time in Rockies in running out and I’m racing through each of my free days to get everything done that I wanted to do. This weekend’s tackle was HI-Hilda Creek.

Whenever I drive home from Banff or Lake Louise, I use the outhouse at Parker Ridge. (I affectionately and conveniently call the piece of road just south of Parker Ridge the “toilet bowl” not only because of its proximity to the Parker Ridge Outhouse but also because of it’s build on a down-spiral.) Less than a km north of Parker Ridge, there is a little hostel sign with an arrow and the word “Hilda”. Every time I drive by the “Hilda” sign, I wish I was staying there.

This weekend, I decided to make that wish a reality.

Continue reading

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Because you can never have too many Banff pictures

While Day One was a little rough, Day Two came together wonderfully. I guess it helps when you can actually see the snow! I’m paying for it now (wearing pants is such torture, OMG), but I did manage to ski at pretty much 90% capacity on Monday and Tuesday. Even got a respectable amount of black diamonds and moguls in. Was seriously tempted by some double blacks too (or perhaps it was by the cute Aussie backcountry skiiers…) but I was a good girl (especially since I was skiing alone) and opted to not push myself into situations I might not be able to get out of.

Anyway, since there’s not a whole lot to say and pictures are worth many words, here are some pictures of Days 2 and 3, taken by my shaking, cold hand on my phone:

Early morning on Day 2

Early morning on Day 2

Banff Trip 035

Banff Trip 039

Banff Trip 041

Banff Trip 055

Banff Trip 058

Quick pic at a pit stop on the way home.

And for those who can’t get enough mountain pictures, the full album should be public on Facebook.

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First Day of Skiing with a Spinal Cord Injury.

After a long month of long hours at work coupled with an MS attack that took my lower body out of commission, I’m finally back on the skihill!

See?

Morning in Banff

Morning in Banff

You know, I generally have a pretty positive attitude toward my immune-system eaten spine. The rebelious lower body comes and goes and I know one day it’ll stop working for good. I’m ok with that. I work in health care. Every day I see people, even young people, forced to relearn to live due to spinal cord injuries. For most of them, it was sudden. Their sports, their ambitions, their dancing – bam! Gone in a flash. Me, I’m lucky. I’m super, super lucky: I had the fortune of being warned. And a good, fair warning it was: over 15 years later I’m still making nearly full recoveries after every attack. I’ve had lots of time for dance and gymnastics, skiing and hiking. I have one more trip planned and then I’ll be ready. Of course, the more time the better, but yeah, no regrets.

So I haven’t completely recovered from this attack. I don’t have full use of my legs yet but I figured I’d get back on my skis since, you know, having bought a pass and all. Besides, since moving out here, I’ve always found healing in the mountains. Whether I’m sad, stressed, tired, sickly or just in dire need of exercise, they’ve been there for me. (Mountains are always there for you. You can always find them at the same spot, time after time.) So, I thought, why not turn to them for some physiotherapy as well?

Mother Nature at her finest.

Mother Nature at her finest.

Today was the big first day! As you can see by the pictures, the weather didn’t cooperate much. For the most part, it was snowing and winding hard. They even had to close most of the chairlifs early. But! At least it wasn’t -30 or raining.

The flatlight (for you non-skiiers, flatlight happens when the light isn’t bright enough and you can’t see the snow, not even the snow that’s super close to you) was a little hard to deal with too. Even with goggles supposedly made for bad weather, I was blind. On my first run of the day, I wondered for a moment why I couldn’t go forward. Took a little wiggling around to realize that my skis were, in fact, stuck in a snowdrift as high as my waist.

As for my legs…

I have to say, it was a little frustrating to be strugging on runs that I would have flown through normally. Especially since the snow was soft (seriously! It was like light light flour. I desperately wanted to rub my cheek on it. ) and the powder was bountiful. I could picture myself gliding around the moguls, catching the little jumps and digging my edges to carve the semi-steep slopes.

Instead I probably looked like a first timer as I learned to ski all over again.

I’ve been trained to ski mainly with my ankles. It’s hard to convey this to beginners who look down in amazement at the iron bindings firmly clasped around their lower extremities, but my feet are always moving. They feel the ground and they adjust over and over again. But now I have very little control over my ankles. The nerve damage in my feet is a double wammy, making the feeling of pins and needles (very similar to when you stand up after losing circulation in your feet for awhile) quiiiite uncomfortable and masking whatever signals the ground was trying send. Skiing without relying primarily on my feet to read the snow for me was like being 4 years old and discovering long slidy shoes for the first time all over again.

Then, my knees and my hips are still pretty restricted. I don’t use them the same way as I do my ankles, but they’re still supposed to take whatever orders my feet send them. They’re supposed to bend or unbend as needed so that I can flow with the bumps and dives of trails. Muscles that refuse to relax make that usual flexion/extension process a tad more complicated. I felt pretty rigid. In turn, the rigidity forced my weight backwards, causing me to lose my balance a lot. I had a million flashbacks of my ski teachers of yore shouting at me: “Get off the toilet seat! Stop leaning back!”

While I seemed pretty doomed to failure, I got a bit better after the first few runs. It was painful and took a lot of concentration, but I was able to get in a few excellent turns. I mainly stuck to blue (intermediate) runs but I did succeed on a few black diamonds that, I swear, I ended up on completely by accident. I looked a bit stupid, I think, and I was slow, much slower than usual, but thankfully, the flatlight and resulting blindness forced just about everyone to take their time, lest they find themselves falling off a cliff or getting stuck in a snowdrift.

I took an approximately 90 minute break midday to eat lunch and check into my hotel room (staying right on the mountain, yay!). I considered lying down to nap, but I itched with the urge to head back outside for some extra torture. I ended up going on for quite some time, long enough to catch the very last lift up before the center closed for the day.

That last trip was worth it too. The Sunday crowds were gone so I had the hill to myself. And my mountains smiled on me, shining some sun through the storm and giving me a glorious flatlight-free final run.

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Planning the Epic Journey: The Challenges

A lot of people would like to travel. Not everyone, sometimes I meet people who say “it’s great that you love to do this stuff, but it’s not for me”, but a lot of people. And usually they’re accompanied by a list of reasons why not to travel.

Money and safety are ironically the excuses I hear most. Ironically because they must be, in my opinion, the least founded excuses ever. Depending on where you go, you can travel for quite cheap and if you’re trying hard enough, you can cover a good portion of your travel expenses while on the road. Safety is… I dunno, I kind of get the impression that safety is a lie our countries tell us to keep us from spending money abroad. You hear so very little of the millions of women (in “safe countries”) who are abused (and even killed!) by their husbands IN THEIR OWN HOME, yet one tourist is killed in Turkey and suddenly travel is dangerous sport.

But I have my excuses as well. I prefer to think of them as “challenges” and spend a lot of time figuring out how to get around them.

1- Time

This is a reoccurring theme in my writing… I’m obsessed with time. Youth is short, so so so short. Yet somehow, to fit in with society, by the end of one’s youth, one must have:

- an education
- a career
- world traveling experience
- a spouse
- children or an official no-children stance

And as hurried as I’ve been, with time running out, all I accomplished was the education. The hell. How do people do this stuff?

Now I’m working on the career part and the world traveling part, but it’s very hard to fit them in together. You get 2-3 weeks vacation a year, extra time off is hard to negotiate, and at most you can take 10 (14 if you’re lucky) days off in a row. It’s great for the bank account, but you can’t really see the world in that time-frame.

Frustrating.

The joy of contract work is that when you’re done, you’re done. There’s no dramatic quitting or anything like that. Of course you’re leaving: your contract is up. But still, I can go at most for 2 years without working, otherwise I have to redo all my licensing exams (that was traumatic enough the first time – would rather not go through that again), and besides, even with just one year away, I’d forget a lot of important stuff and miss a lot of big changes. So I come back after a year to another contract, and by the time that’s up, it’ll be time to tackle children so that I don’t have to spend my quality retirement years chasing after a toddler.

2- Attachments

About a year ago I was dating this guy and one day, out of the blue, he asked me to choose between the trip and the relationship. (He didn’t actually word it like that, but ultimately that’s what he was asking.)

I was a little bit ticked off because THE WHOLE REASON I agreed to date him in the first place was because he said he was planning to go to Australia too, but that’s beyond the point. The point is, that scene was a physical manifestation of the internal conflict I get whenever I meet someone who doesn’t totally turn me off.

In a long time, I’m leaving for a long time.

It’s not super super hard because I’m not attracted to people very often and the rare people I am attracted to generally aren’t attracted to me. For this, the love lottery plays into my favor. But when the unlikely situation occurs I really connect with someone, the warning flashes through my mind “Remember, you have just the right amount of time to get attached.”

It’s not just about my own heartbreak. I’ve handled that a dozen times before and I can handle it again. Adventures are a great distraction. I just hate to waste someone else’s time and upset their feelings.

Sometimes, well-willing people tell me that I should just have shallow relationships and fool around. Been there, seen it, done it. Outgrown it. I’m super happy on my own and have absolutely nothing to gain from a casual boyfriend. I don’t feel like I have anything to gain from a serious relationship either, but you don’t always choose those things, and every now again, I meet someone who catches my interest and I worry that they’ll distract me from leaving.

Perhaps it’s silly – I think that in order to put up with me, a partner would have to share my lifestyle (or be really really independent) anyway, and I’d be ok with someone willing to join me on one or more legs of my trip. Still, on the rare occasions that seem to have potential, the question always comes up: “This or the trip?

3- Health

I’ve had MS for about 13 years now. Most of the time, I do really well. I was so young when I was diagnosed that I have no idea what my body would be like without MS. I get sleepy a lot. Maybe I’m just a sleepy person. My legs get tingly a lot. Maybe I have oversensitive nerves. I’m terribly absent minded. Maybe I was born that way. I have trouble talking. Maybe I’m just too nervous around people.

I get super angry during bad flareups (do you know how much it sucks to have to put EFFORT into getting to all the way to the bathroom, only to realize that…those…muscles….don’t work anymore?), but for the most part I’ve accepted my fate and even have plenty of ideas on hobbies for my wheelchair-bound days. I’ve always wanted to take singing lessons. And I do have lots of ideas for books I could write.

But one thing that worries me all the time is that I won’t get the chance to see the world the easy way before my immune system eats up too much of my nervous system. I had an MRI last week. It showed some degeneration. Not a whole lot and, thankfully, my spine (which causes like 80% of my problems) was actually pretty stable. It’s still a reminder that my time is limited.

Obviously, I could get hit by a car tomorrow and become quadriplegic long before the MS sets it. I work in healthcare. I know people who’ve been quadriplegic since they were teenagers. You never know. You just never know.

Anyway, the biggest challenge isn’t all the emotional crap I’ve been wasting your time with. The biggest challenge is this:

Betaseron 004

This is one month’s worth of meds. 2000$ worth of temperature sensitive injections. WITH NEEDLES.

In case you don’t really grasp the, um, size of the problem, here’s a picture of ONE MONTH of meds in comparison to my hiking boot:

Betaseron 005

Now imagine fitting 12 OR MORE of these into your tiny backpack and dragging it (and them) across deserts and jungles.

Right.

There are a few other MS drugs but they either require refrigeration (like that’s going to happen in the jungle) or aren’t covered by my insurance. I did test to see how much a year’s worth of Gilenya (the pill for MS) would be. 36000$. (Yes those are 3 zeros.) Um, yeah. I’ll take the wheelchair.

I talked with Beyer (who makes the meds I take) a few times and there is no travel format available for Betaseron. I could repackage the meds myself (after all, I am a pharmacist and have access to labeling and packaging materials), but a year’s supply would still take up a lot of room of my bags, and there’s no guarantee that border officials will accept pharmacy packaging for injectable drugs. And at 150$ per dose, I’d rather not have my meds confiscated.

I looked around online (I’m not in touch with the MS community. Too depressing.) and found absolutely nothing on long term adventure travel with MS meds. People with MS apparently don’t travel. I did read a blog post about one guy who had MS for years and was excited about a trip with his family to the Grand Canyon (I was very happy for him), but there’s no useful information out there.

My neurologist doesn’t recommend me stopping my meds, but I think the plan will probably be to have a few months supply, since my Australia leg will probably be fairly stationary, and go without for the heavy backpacking part.

It’s kind of sad to say, but I’d rather risking loosing my ability to walk sooner than pass up the opportunity of a lifetime because of med issues.

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Things I want to do on my Epic Journey

When I started planning the Epic Journey, I thought “Every step of the pre-journey will be tracked on my blog!”

Then stuff like gaming, the gaming blog and the Outside World captured my attention more than writing about trip planning. And so, years into planning, I’ve only just started writing about it.

Better late than never, though, so here’s some sharing of random stuff I found in different countries that I think would be very fun into include in my adventures.

Australia

UltimateOz’ Outback Ranch Package: If you google anything about Australian arrival packages or ranch work, this always comes up first. I searched around for references and reviews, just because it seemed too good to be true, and everything I found pointed toward it being legit. For the first half of the two week program, they welcome you and show you around Sydney and help you do all the bureaucratic stuff like set up a bank account and taxfile number, deal with mail and stuff like that. Yes, I know it’s all stuff I could do on my own for much cheaper, but you know what? For once in my life, I don’t want to think. I want them to walk me through it, I want to hang out with other travelers and I want my arrival to be as stress-free as possible. I also have a huge budget set aside for splurges that I really want, and I really want this splurge.

During the second week, you get hands-on ranch training and experience. I can’t even begin to say how excited I get when I think of that.

Obviously, I live in Alberta, Canada, and every time I bring this up offline, I get job offers from local farms. And yes, the whole reason I want to do the course (and hopefully work a couple of months on a real cattle ranch – but I’d still do the course even if I decided to not pursue cattle ranch work) is because it’s a skillset I don’t have, and I’m a big believer of using every opportunity to develop new skills. I could, sure, develop those skills here in Canada, but there’s a world of difference between volunteering on a Canadian farm over my weekends in addition to my regular job, and having a blast with other travelers in the hot Australian sun while my mind is free of the burdens of drug insurance companies and angry customers.

More than just developing new skills, I also want to get this kind of experience while I still can. I plan on going into more detail in future posts, but the countdown on my leg use has started. I still do fine most of the time but I lose feeling in them more and more often, and the muscles are getting stubborner and stubborner. Every time the Epic Journey gets delayed, my heart sinks and I worry that my trip will start too late and I won’t meet the physical requirements for a farm experience.

So anyway, the plan is to make sure I have a really fun physical job and take full advantage of my ability to walk and run and lift heavy objects because I won’t be able to much longer.

Thailand

Volunteering through Andaman Discoveries: I really wanted to do some international volunteer work along the way and my guide book suggested Andaman Discoveries. I looked them up and was impressed by their mentality, their level of organization and how recognized they were in the field of ethical tourism.

There are a lot of opportunities in South East Asia to volunteer in orphanages. I’ve been, though, warned against the darksides of orphanage volunteering. For one, the short term aspect of volunteering is rough on the kids. As soon as they get attached to you, you leave. And secondly, there’ve been reports of orphanages buying children to serve as tourist attractions. (While this may be entirely untrue, as an international adoption hopeful, I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic and it seems that a major reason Canada and the US have banned adoption from certain countries is because families, orphanages and agencies were trying to “sell” children who did not need adopting to Westerners.)

Andaman does have an orphanage volunteering program (which seems like it is ethical, and the volunteer’s role seems to be more that of a guest presenter than a caretaker, which likely much healthier for the kids), they also have a program for children of Burmese Migrants, and a Special Education program. All the programs seem super interesting, but I would love to volunteer with the Special Education program. I worked for years at a summer camp for children on the Austism Spectrum where I discovered that I absolutely adore that clientele. I miss it every day now that I can’t have summer jobs anymore. It would be amazing to have another Special Education experience, this time in an intercultural setting.

Laos

Big Brother Mouse: Literacy is my favorite cause, so I was super excited when I stumbled upon Big Brother Mouse. In Laos, many people live in remote areas where books aren’t exactly accessible. And even when books are available, many of them are in foreign languages. Big Brother Mouse works to increase the quantity of books in the Lao language and gets those books to places they wouldn’t normally go. Opportunities to help out mostly involve sponsorship (however! if you have a published book that would be appropriate in Laos and you’re willing to give them the rights to publish it in Lao – let them know! They might be interested and you’d be making a difference in people’s lives!), but something cool you can donate toward are book parties. During book parties, they bring books to a more remote village. There are a lot of fun activities and games, and in the end, they leave enough books behind to start a mini-library. What makes this even better is that if you sponsor a book party, you can attend one in the future. It seems like a great way to support literacy and learn about Lao culture in a really unique setting.

Every time I read the Big Brother Mouse website, I want to learn and master the Lao language, just so that I can help them write and translate books. Hmm, I wonder if I could get my pharmacist credentials in Laos, so that I could stay longer and make myself useful.

Philippines

In my travel research, the biggest surprise to me was the Philippines. I didn’t know much about the country, other than how it was composed of many islands and their people, I swear, are the bravest people in the world. Even in Northern, Northern Canadian towns that suffer extreme climates that even us Canadians can’t stand, you’ll always find a thriving and cheerful Filipino community.

About a year ago, I started sponsoring a little girl in the Philippines. The organization I do the sponsorship with, Plan Canada, lets you visit your sponsored children. (Mine is really young, so I would probably be more like visiting her family.) So I started doing researching what else I could check out in the Philippines.

Interestingly, there is a lot to do in the Philippines. Plus, tourism there seems to be at its childhood stages, so there is enough infrastructure to make travel simple and interesting, but the country isn’t overrun yet by annoying and perverted tourists.

One thing that caught my eye is WWOOFing opportunities in the Philippines. WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms – basically you get room and board in exchange for volunteering on a farm) is super popular among travelers to Australia and New Zealand, but I was surprised to see hosts in the Philippines. I think it would be a great chance to stay in one place in the Philippines, put my Australian farm skills to use, contribute a little bit to the local economy and get a small feel of daily life in their country.

And more!

Those are the bigger projects I’m interested in, but I would still like to see all the countries listed in my South East Asia guide book. I definitely want to visit temples in Myanmar/Burma and Cambodia (I would like to study religious history in those countries, but I couldn’t find much in terms of short courses so I will probably have to teach myself before I go). I want to take a (or several!) cooking class(es) in Vietnam. I want to visit the wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia, I want to stay in a Borneo Longhouse. New Zealand has my attention as well and I would love to take a short course on Maori culture and language (all I could find, though, were year long university certificates and, unfortunately, I don’t have enough time for that).

I want to eat lots of food in Singapore (and also want to explore the city/country – I had this massive fascination with Singapore when I was, like, 19, and while the obsession has faded, I definitely want to spend a few days there) and experience Brunei and Timor-Leste, two countries that I had barely even heard of before researching my trip. (I had heard of Timor-Leste slightly, back when I was in high school, because of the unrest at the time, but I haven’t heard much of it since then.) And while I’m probably the only person in the world who doesn’t really care to go to Bali, I figure I should still spend a couple of nights there, just because.

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Dreams and Epic Journeys

worldmap

When I was a very little kid, before I could even read, perhaps, my parents bought me a globe. The globe sat on the far right of my desk.

When I was a little older and started school, doing homework always took forever because instead of looking at my books and writing the lines and lines of scribbles my teachers and parents wanted (when you’re cursed with shitty fine motor movement, you have to do a lot of remedial work), I’d peer at my globe. I would look at the countries to find the biggest, the smallest and the ones with the funniest names.

I would ask my mom about these countries and, because this was before the internet, she probably couldn’t answer me very well. But, still, every night, I’d neglect my forced calligraphy exercises to contemplate the hugeness of the world. I’d dream about going to all these far away places to see what they were like. I couldn’t wait to be a grown up and leave on an adventure.

There were two major, in my little girl eyes, events in my life that really developed my relationship with my globe.

One was when a family friend sent me a Christmas present. It was a little doll with a note saying how it was hand-made in Peru. “Where is Peru?” I asked my mom. “Far”, she told me. (Did anyone else have that problem with their parents and unsatisfying answers?) I got my globe and she showed me where Peru was. I was amazed at this family friend who went ALL THE WAY TO PERU and bought a doll for me. I wanted to go ALL THE WAY TO PERU too. It was a double gift. A doll for the little girl that I was, and a dream for the person that I am.

The second event was of a more sombre nature. My family and I were in the living room watching TV. News that Canada was to take part in the Gulf war came onscreen. I was 5 years old. My mom’s family had come straight from Germany, so my childhood had been filled with tales of World War II, of being bombed and of running away with “nothing but the clothes on your back”. The news said we were going to war. I thought of my house burning, I thought of bombs falling everywhere and I pictured myself running into the street with a big pile of clothes strapped to my back (I was a very literal child). I started to cry. Quickly, my parents sent me to bring out my globe. They pointed to Kuwait and Iraq and showed me how far away the fighting was.

I was relieved at the time, but I like to think that it set the framework for the global consciousness I wanted to develop in myself later on.

The Birth of the Epic Journey

I didn’t get much opportunity to travel as a kid. My parents weren’t fond of the hassle and were of the older school of thought that believes travel is expensive, dangerous and pointless.

We did, however, take a lot of family vacations to different regions of our home province as well as visited family in Toronto and New Brunswick. Which is more than most kids got back then, so I won’t complain. Besides, on my current journeys as an adult, I’m constantly shocked at how most of the fellow travelers I meet have seen so much of the world, but know absolutely nothing of their own backyard. It’s important, I think, to know where you come from and to understand and love your homeland. It adds an extra dimension and meaning when encountering and adapting to new cultures and environments.

I traveled a little bit in my early adulthood. Mostly in my own country and in the US. I didn’t have much freedom of time or money, so instead I took opportunities for student exchanges or inter-provincial internships as they came. That’s how you do it when you can’t afford to take time off school or work. You fit travel in when the chance presents itself.

A lot of my high school friends went into career fields like international development, human rights law, environmental engineering, international commerce, etc. earning them jobs that let them relocate all over the world. For some reason, despite all my dreaming, I wasn’t particularly attracted to those lines of work and ended up studying psychology and pharmacy, which tend not be as accommodating of globe-trotting needs.

During a pharmacist’s conference in Victoria, BC when I was in first year (see! taking advantage of travel opportunities!), I stopped by a outdoor-adventure-slash-travel shop to buy a travel towel because I had forgotten my travel towel at home. There was a sign on the wall about a presentation that night by a girl my age who had just gotten back from backpacking in South East Asia. I didn’t have other more pressing plans, so I went to the presentation.

That’s when I decided that my graduation gift to myself, after 10 years of college, was to take off to South East Asia to just backpack around.

I’ve always been a sensible person, though, and it dawned on me that a burden of 10 years of student debt is probably not the best thing to bring on this trip. So I took a two year contract. The first year, I decided, I would pay off all my loans. The second year, I would start saving.

Sometime around there, I found myself in Winnipeg, getting drunk with an Australian who worked in Banff (this is what Canadian life is like!). He told me about Australian travel holiday visas. Basically, there are jobs, mostly farm jobs, that no one wants to do, so they hire tourists with promises of visa extensions in exchange for hard labour.

“I want to do that.” I thought.

At first, I was ready to go pick fruit or zucchini or something. Then I started reading and OMG. Some people with working holiday visas get to work, on, OMG OMG OMG…CATTLE RANCHES!!

Another childhood dream of mine. A real Australian cattle ranch! I want to do that!

Of course, you say that where I live in Alberta and people just give you funny looks. “A cattle ranch? Why go all the way to Australia? You could come work on my cattle ranch.”

The State of Planning for the Epic Journey

In case you were wondering, I did more or less hit my milestones.

It took 13 months to be 100% debt free. A month behind schedule, but still, not bad considering I bought a car, moved across a continent and furnished an apartment.

A year after that, I have more than enough money saved up to travel. While I’m only considering going for a year and a bit (I’m allowed to go without working for 2 years without losing my pharmacist’s license, but I’m afraid I’ll forget too much stuff), I could easily live abroad for several years. So no worries there. (Pharmacy may not be a very travel-friendly profession but, at least, if you’re willing to face challenges and do the work no one wants to do, you can make enough money to just buy the freedom to do whatever you want.)

But, because I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, I agreed to delay my trip an extra year, to help out my store.

It’s ok though.

It gives me more time to plan, to organize my finances and to tie up loose ends here. I do worry about time ticking away – life is long but youth is short and my health isn’t the greatest – but it’s all about priorities, I guess. I do want a family at some point (at least children, I don’t think I really want a husband) but there are things I need to do on my own first. I can accept not having children until my mid 30s, but I don’t want to go through life having never done the South East Asia and Australia epic adventure on my own.

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After 2 Years as a Pharmacist: The Early Lessons

Over the past few weeks I’ve been excited about the many Facebook updates from my old school’s Class of 2013. Writing the PEBCs (by far the most grueling and scariest exam prep I’ve ever, and probably will ever, do), (much deserved) celebrating the after-PEBCs, convocation and getting ready to move to a new town. I remember how I felt around that time and I’m so happy to see another cohort finally be rewarded for all their hard work.

It also makes me realize that it’s been 2 years since I wrote the PEBCs and moved across the country (we’re talking 4 timezones here!) to start my own career. What an adventure it has been! I’m not sure if it met expectations because I never had expectations, but I certainly learned a lot.

Honestly, moving long distance, by myself (with no parents, no boyfriend, no friends to help with most of the heavy lifting), was cake. Your back hurts from lifting all those heavy boxes and furniture, but the rest, finding a new home, making friends, becoming a member of the community, is easy. Don’t let those afraid-of-change people tell you otherwise!

Starting as a new pharmacist, though, unless you’re very lucky, is tough. Most patients don’t take “I’m a new grad” as an answer. You’ll discover that pill bottles are fantastic projectiles and hurt when they strike your face. You’ll learn many new cuss words. Most coworkers aren’t interested in teaching you the ropes. Many will even take advantage of you and when you come home every evening exhausted, stressed and scared only to have your night plagued by nightmare after nightmare, you think that’s just how a pharmacist’s job is and you’ll get used to it. Doctors will ask you weird questions and you’ll feel as if you set the profession back 20 years when you can’t answer.

Thankfully, you pick up tricks along the way and it gets better.

So, as my 2-year introspection write up, I share the 6 main lessons I learned as a new grad pharmacist.

1- Don’t sign a contract until you’re sure

I don’t regret signing a contract. In fact, unless I work as freelance relief or score a dream job, I’ll probably always do contract work. But I see so many other pharmacists end up with jobs they hate and can’t get out of. Or pharmacists who added to their student debt by breaking contracts they signed in their first year of pharmacy school. I know the money is tempting, but most contracts are about 2 years long after graduation. 2 years is a long time when you’re miserable. So before you sign, ask yourself: “Am I comfortable with this setting (rural vs urban vs suburban)?” “Am I ok with being far from/close to family?” “Am I someone who removes themselves from difficult situations or am I someone who rolls with the punches?”

There’s a reason a company will throw a lot of money at you to go somewhere. If you’re someone who values comfort and doesn’t put up with potentially painful situations, you’ll probably be happier in a less paying but more open-ended setting.

2- Be money smart

After surviving on ramen for years, finally having a decent income is delightful! But be smart about it. The better with money you are, the less hard you have to work later on.

Pay off all your debts first. Then inquire about your company’s pension plan (even if you don’t think you’ll be staying with the company). Once you’re ready, make a list of all your expensive goals, short term and long term. Hand the list over to your financial adviser (your bank will be happy to provide you with one) and work with them to build a proper savings regimen. It’s super easy and the earlier you do it, the more you’ll save.

Learn to do your own taxes too. (I did mine with StudioTax two years in a row and it took like 15 minutes at most.) Your best deductions will be from your RRSPs/Pension Plan so make sure you max them out as much as possible. I got a bit back from charity donations too.

3- Be useful to your community outside of work

This is especially important in small communities. When you only meet people in a work setting, you really don’t see their best side. By volunteering (in a non-work related setting), you get to have no-pressure interactions where you aren’t trying to sell anything or force healthy lifestyles on anyone. You’re also letting others see you as a full person instead of just the white coat who lectures, hands out vials and takes money. And, you know, it’s fun to volunteer.

Even if you’re really busy, you can find organizations that you can volunteer with on a drop-in basis, so you don’t have to make a regular, long term commitment. (I volunteer with our local SPCA – I can pop by whenever I want to walk dogs or play with cats, it gives me my pet fix and I get exercise.)

4- Don’t be a hero

I think my biggest mistake as a new pharmacist was to let myself be taken advantage of. When papers piled up, I worked harder and even came in on my days off to help out. Whenever I panicked under the mountains of pressure, I told myself to toughen up.

What I should have done was put my then-coworker’s supervisor on speed dial and report every incident and every lack of respect that occurred in the store. I should have taken pictures of her messes and sent them to head office. I should have complained over and over and over again.

No one should have to work in an abusive environment. Feeling overwhelmed and burned out is not a normal part of being a new grad. If you need guidance, extra training, human resources interventions, ask. Don’t wait for the company to offer – if you don’t ask, they assume you don’t need. And don’t suck it up. Yes, you can teach yourself eventually, but it isn’t safe, not for you and not for your patients.

And in case you’re wondering, when a new supervisor finally made me realize how bad of a situation I was in and convinced me to stop playing hero by confessing what I going through, stuff started to happen. Good stuff. This isn’t the movies. In the corporate world, it is assertive people who work the chain of command who win, not silent heroes.

5- Make your thought and work processes obvious

Ideally, if you died tomorrow (or less morbidly, won the lottery), a new pharmacist should be able to walk into your store and take up exactly where you left off.

This means documenting everything. This means storing said documentation in a logical location. This means getting rid of anything unnecessary.

Whenever you do or write anything, always ask yourself “If I didn’t know the back-story, would I understand this?

It makes life easier on your coworkers, on your company and even on your patients. But most importantly, it makes life easier on you as you don’t have to worry about keeping each problem in your short term memory. It saves you from irate (and irritating!) phones calls on your days off. And if there’s a problem later on – say a drug check, or an error, or a homicide investigation (this actually happened to me!) – you can save face by presenting all your data on a moment’s notice.

6- Always work from the premise that others are doing their best

If I were to choose a single piece of advice to give, it would be this one. This is so important, especially in interdisciplinary work.

As a pharmacist, you’ll constantly find yourself a player in a team of nurses, physicians, health care aides, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, clergy people, counselors and more! These people will frustrate you, you will frustrate them and they will frustrate each other.

Even on a smaller scale, among a pharmacy staff of pharmacists, technicians, assistants, students and front store staff, interpersonal conflict will creep in at the worst possible times.

The key is to always assume that everyone is doing their best. Never point blame at anyone, always look at mistakes and omissions as the result of circumstance. Focus on changing circumstances, procedures and protocols, not people. Never complain about other members on the team. Avoid comments implying that a team member is lazy or doesn’t care or is incompetent.

Almost every workplace or interdisciplinary conflict I’ve witnessed or experienced in my first 2 years was a result of not understanding the other person’s job or perspective. Almost every rift I smoothed over was patched by assuming everyone involved was giving it their all, by familiarizing myself with everyone’s else task descriptions, by listening, by being transparent about my own role and by finding out where I could make myself useful.

Unless someone is clearly abusive or negligent (see advice #4), taking a respectful and appreciative stance in your communications and problem solving is far more effective and enjoyable than any kind of blaming, complaining or head on confrontation.

Interestingly enough, I even find that when I treat others with the assumption that they are doing their best, they almost always return the favor.

And with that, huge congrats to all the Pharmacy Classes of 2013 out there and best of luck with your careers!

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