January 15, 2021

Volunteer Spotlight: Tomasz Jurga, 2020 Pharmacy Volunteer of the Year

This month’s Spotlight features Tomasz Jurga, our 2020 Pharmacy Volunteer of the Year. Tomasz started at CommunityHealth in December 2018, and has since served 205 hours as a dedicated volunteer pharmacist!

Name: Tomasz Jurga
Where do you call home: Oak Park, IL
Occupation: Assistant Professor of Clinical Sciences at Roosevelt University College of Pharmacy and Clinical Pharmacy Specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital’s outpatient cardiology clinic
Volunteer Role: Pharmacist

In a few sentences, tell us more about yourself and your background!

I came to the United States from Poland when I was 15 and, as all recent immigrants, immediately suffered a tremendous culture shock. Thanks to my geographical location at the time I was exposed to a variety of communities around the Chicagoland area. I first lived in the Portage Park neighborhood, then moved to the Norwood Park area. This was much different than the comfortable bubble of a less diverse population back in my Polish hometown. My mind became open to new ideas and cultures at this formative stage of life. Instead of clinging on to nostalgia and melancholy, feelings familiar to many immigrants, I embraced this new world of possibility and growth.

Is there a specific area of healthcare you are interested in or healthcare experiences you are seeking?

I have been a pharmacist for over 3 and a half years now. I’m still fresh in the field but continue to develop new skill to better serve patients and communities. A specific area of interest and focus has been cardiology and cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment.

Outside of volunteering with CommunityHealth, how do you like to spend your free time?

Love spending time outdoors. Hiking, nature walks, running, biking, kayaking – anything that helps me not be surrounded by four walls. When the weather is nice and warm I spend the majority of my time outside being active. In the winter I snowboard as often as possible. Love improving and developing new skills!

What does your ideal vacation look like?

A tropical spot near the ocean. Spend the entire vacation exploring and adventuring – preferably traveling exploring ruins of ancient civilizations and national parks. Would be ideal to spend a lot of time in the ocean snorkeling and scuba diving and hiking up mountains. When evenings come around it would be most ideal to get out and find a great spot for dinner/drinks and party until sunrise! COVID-19; please go away…

Why and how did you begin volunteering at CommunityHealth?

December 2018. I started volunteering about the same time I landed my first job after completing residency – it was always my plan to start volunteering at CommunityHealth after finishing pharmacy school and residency. I was exposed to CH through the Polish American Pharmacists Association. We did a short educational session for Polish and Spanish-speaking patients back around 2014, and since then I knew I wanted to come back as a full-fledged volunteer. I just didn’t know how to get into volunteering.

So, how did I end up at CH so soon after becoming faculty at Roosevelt University College of Pharmacy? Laura Licari is a current volunteer at CH who also happens to be a co-worker from Roosevelt. She had asked me if I ever thought about volunteering – I told her I was and she introduced me to the volunteer portal and navigated me through the pharmacy volunteer process. Thanks Laura!

Do you remember your first day? What surprised you?

I remember my first day at the pharmacy because it was so different compared to how a retail pharmacy is usually run. The pharmacists at CH have much more clinical independence than pharmacists working in a typical pharmacy. This allows for a lot more professional satisfaction and improved patient care because much less time is wasted fixing prescription discrepancies. I was so amazed by how efficiently everything at the pharmacy was run, which made my day that much more memorable.

What has kept you volunteering all this time?

It seemed that the patients and pharmacy benefited from my presence at CH. Thus, it just made sense to continue volunteering. It helped that I genuinely enjoyed being there!

What is something you’ve learned from volunteering at CommunityHealth?

I specialize in cardiology, but am exposed to all sorts of conditions and medications at CH, so I got to practice in a more general setting and this helped me learn something new every day!

What has been your biggest takeaway from your time with CommunityHealth, and how does this impact your other life or career goals?

My biggest takeaway is that it takes a lot of interdisciplinary work to help an entire community. My career/life goals include the need to continue to volunteer even after I move away to a different state.

How has working with CommunityHealth influenced your perception of healthcare?

My perception of healthcare hasn’t changed much because it’s apparent that healthcare in the US is broken. Working at CH has influenced my opinion that volunteering should be a normal part of everyone’s professional repertoire. However, in order to change healthcare, we need to educate ourselves outside of just our medicine-related comfort zone and learn more about politics in order to make the best possible choices for future generations.

Can you share an especially memorable moment working with a patient/fellow volunteer/staff member?

There are so many memorable and impactful moments that happened at CH… This particular one doesn’t supersede all the other positive impacts/interventions, but it is probably the best example of how our work is perceived by those we serve:

A Polish-speaking patient came to the pharmacy to pick up some meds. The pharmacy student asked the usual “any questions for the pharmacist” and the patient paused for a moment before saying “no.” The question was asked in English and I heard the last name to be Polish, so after hearing the hesitancy in the response I leaned toward the window and repeated the question in Polish – “are you sure you don’t have any questions? I noticed you hesitated there.” The patient proceeded to say “well, I don’t want to be a bother; it’s just that I have no idea how to use these insulin vials – I’ve always used insulin pens and now that I’m with you I have to use vials.”

This is such an unfortunate norm, especially among Polish patients, that it is almost terrifying. I saw my own father in this patient. Hesitant to even go to the doctor’s office, because of the perceived burden he would cause.

The patient was ready to leave when I asked “how about you take a seat and I’ll go through everything with you step by step.”

This is the part where you can tell whether a patient truly wants to just leave and get the visit over with versus hear you out because they are truly lost.

The patient stopped in his tracks and gave us the predictable “are you sure it’s not too much to ask for?” This is another privilege of working at CH – you HAVE the time to educate the patients, while at a typical retail pharmacy this is simply not the case.

I grabbed our insulin injection demo kit and told the patient to sit down. It wouldn’t take long, maybe 5 minutes at most – but these 5 minutes would ensure the patient left confident and independent. Most importantly, the patient would feel in control of their own health and would now be less prone to injection errors, which are sadly very prevalent in many patients. Just look up “lipohypertrophy” to see an example.

After our 5 minutes the patient was so thankful he couldn’t stop smiling. It took no effort on my part, but the resulting satisfaction was immense.

How can CommunityHealth be more supportive of your journey?

Not sure if that’s even possible – CH has been an immense part of my professional journal – Thank you!

What does being a healthcare professional mean to you? 

It means nurturing and supporting the community. It was always important for me to give back to the Polish community. However, being a healthcare professional is both a privilege and a responsibility that no one should take lightly. Giving back to a specific community is kind and just, but the ultimate goal should be to positively impact all human life. This can only be achieved by continuing to educate not just oneself, but the members of the very communities in question. This requires continued learning, growth, and progress.

Why is volunteering important to you? What do you get out of it?

I get a sense of hope out of it. Volunteering isn’t important to “me”; rather, it is a necessary part of our human experience. The feeling of satisfaction that I personally get out of helping other people is ultimately meaningless unless it shows results. The pleasant feeling of seeing people heal and be happy is nourishing; however, it simply serves as a signal that the work that we do is necessary. Altruism is a necessary part of our existence and one day will hopefully lead to a better quality of life for all.

What advice would you give to a new volunteer at CommunityHealth?

Don’t be rigid. Try to strive to be malleable and absorb all the lessons that our patients and workers throw at you. No matter the job/role that you fulfill – it has an important purpose and your presence has an impact not just on the patient in front of you – but the community as a whole. The more you learn, the greater your ultimate impact will be.

Tomasz will be moving to Ann Arbor, MI, soon to start a new role as a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist at the VA Hospital outpatient cardiology clinic! We’ll be sad to see him go but are grateful for his dedication to our patients, commitment to expanding healthcare access to low-income Chicagoans, and wonderful, caring presence over the years at CommunityHealth.