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'You'll mask up and serve the community' A letter from a pharmacist to his pre-pandemic self

Aaron Koay advises his past self on self-belief and perseverance during the pandemic.

This has been a year like no other in living memory. As 2020 draws to a close, we are asking people from around Ireland to write a letter to the person they were 12 months ago. Today, Aaron Koay, a pharmacist in a community pharmacy in Dublin, advises his past self on self-belief and perseverance during the pandemic.

Dear past me,

Ancient eastern and western philosophers postulated that change is the only constant, something which you firmly believe. The year 2020 will be no exception.

I know that you don’t have a natural inclination towards infectious diseases; in fact, you greatly dreaded that part of the pharmacy curriculum in college. I hate to break it to you, but there’s going to be an outbreak of a viral infection that will grow into a pandemic. It’ll be a baptism of fire for you into the pharmacy profession.

Restrictive public health measures will kick in days before your birthday. Shortly after a stressful day in the pharmacy on your placement, you’ll wake up to a string of worrying messages from your friends and colleagues only to realise that you’ve been ‘asked’ to leave your college accommodation and advised to return to your home country in 48 hours.

Instead, you’ll mask up, go back to placement the next day and fulfil your duty to serve the community at the most difficult of times. Before you know it, you’ll be part of the migrant healthcare workforce that has been integral throughout the pandemic.

You’ll witness the successes, but also the failures, of systems and political leaderships worldwide. Your parents will be rightfully anxious and want you to return, but you know you won’t see them or your friends back home anytime soon.

It’ll be your sixth year away from Malaysia. Home is where the heart is, you’ll tell yourself.

You’ll feel small and helpless at times, but you’ll mostly be proud of your pharmacy colleagues, who’ll be working tirelessly alongside you on the frontline and advocating for the pharmacy profession despite the lack of recognition and support for the work you do. Some media highlights and a few claps won’t change much, you’ll understand. You’ll be proud of the agile and responsive healthcare workforce all around the world – but you know what? Be sure to take a moment to be proud of yourself, because you’ll be one of them.

Speaking of change, you’ll switch up your hairstyles a couple of times, willingly or not, and finally get that long-overdue prescription for a new pair of glasses. Who knows, could this be the year when you’ll finally get a tattoo like you’ve always wanted? Don’t let any social norms or people tell you what you can or cannot be. 

You’ve always heartfully wished that the world could just be simple, where people would simply love one and another and peace would prevail. Well, 2020 is the year where you’ll take a deep dive into understanding the deeply inequitable world in which we live and the peril of humanity. Politics, racism, climate change, war, disinformation, money, power, greed, violence.

You’ll feel angry, frustrated and discouraged. But you won’t lose hope.

You always try your best to align your actions with your conscience and values. That’s great, but do not let trying to look perfect get in the way of doing good. You’ll write an article on racism faced by pharmacy students of colour and you’ll fear potential retaliation, but you’ll let your conscience guide you and it’ll pay off. Keep that up.

You like your time alone; it’s how you’ll recharge yourself when you’re weary. But you’ll be delighted to know that despite the pandemic, you’ll forge new friendships and maintain old ones. They’ll be there for you. Hold them close, dearly.

You still won’t become a yoga teacher this year, despite your best intentions. But you’ll keep practising and believe it or not, one day everything will just click into place, and you’ll finally nail the headstand (and the scorpion!).

Amid all the strangeness, you’ll adopt a new identity – several, in fact. You’ll graduate with a Master of Pharmacy degree and qualify as a pharmacist. You always want the best for your patients and the fear of making even the most negligible mistake will keep you up at night. Believe in yourself – I know you struggle with that, so believe in the years of education, training and experiences behind you; they will have prepared you well for the day. You are the pharmacist.

You will secure a fully-funded PhD position and a place on a research PhD training programme in population health and health services. You’ll engage in serious intellectual discussions about health. You’ll pick up the academic lingo. You’ll start teaching. You’ll start publishing and getting cited, slowly but surely. You’ll start learning first-hand what Zoom fatigue is and also wish that you got yourself an extra monitor years ago (seriously, a game-changer).

You’ve struggled with confidence and self-acceptance for a long time, so you’ll seek salvation in trying to achieve your vision of your perfect self, of which you constantly fall short. If you could let go of that illusionary false perception of self, you’ll enable growth and evolution in unexpected ways. Or in other words, stop centering your life around work, take that sunny weekend off (in fact, take every weekend off), say no to that new project, call your parents, celebrate your achievements and most importantly, appreciate and love yourself more.

2020 will be challenging. You’ll learn new things and meet new people. You’ll continue to question, doubt, ponder and unravel the meaning of life. You haven’t yet taken the time to deeply process how this  year has impacted you, but with more uncertainties ahead as we dive into 2021, this letter is perhaps a good start; it’s never too late.

Good luck.

Aaron Koay is a pharmacist and currently practises in a community pharmacy in Dublin. He is also a PhD Scholar in Population Health and Human Factors at Trinity College Dublin.

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