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Kristin DeGirolamo spent a summer in Uganda working with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) - photo by Martin Dee
Kristin DeGirolamo spent a summer in Uganda working with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 5 | May 7, 2009

Africa feeds Pharmacy grad’s compassion

By Randy Schmidt

Kristin DeGirolamo’s family has shaped her passions in life. Her interests have taken her from Victoria, B.C., to Uganda, and from competitive golf to pharmacy studies. Ultimately, they’ve led to an unusually well-defined career focus on HIV/AIDS drug therapy.

The Pharmaceutical Sciences graduating student grew up in a family of golfers – her grandmother’s picture hangs in the B.C. Golf Hall of Fame housed just beside UBC’s Vancouver campus.

DeGirolamo played varsity golf herself for three years at the University of Victoria, before figuring out how she wanted to pursue her other distinct interest: caring for those with HIV/AIDS.

Her mother was a nurse whose own life was shaped by a colleague – Wayne – who contracted HIV/AIDS, and passed away. The red-headed DeGirolamo has fond childhood memories of Wayne, who also had red hair, taking her for strawberry sundaes.

Her mother’s profession, and the death of her childhood friend, fed an early interest in health care. But DeGirolamo was struggling through large classes in biochemistry at UVic before she came upon the field that was a perfect fit: pharmaceutical sciences.

Through a summer job she met Dr. Reg Smith, a UBC Pharmacy alumnus working with the Victoria Heart Institute Foundation. Smith saw patients every day, and helped conduct drug trials and develop new drug therapies.

“This was something I could really get into,” says DeGirolamo. “It had the patient side, as well as the scientific side. I needed something with a human aspect, but I was also very interested in research.”

Smith encouraged DeGirolamo to apply to UBC’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2005. Four years later she is poised to graduate and enter a demanding hospital residency program as a clinical pharmacist. She is thrilled she will get to do an HIV rotation.

From her first year, despite the heavy demands of the professional program, DeGirolamo has volunteered with the B.C. Persons with AIDS Society. She writes a regular drug information column for their newsletter.

After her second year, DeGirolamo went to Uganda for the summer, through a work term organized by UBC’s Go Global office, to volunteer with the The AIDS Support Organization (TASO). She was impressed with the efforts of this Ugandan group which has helped reduce the rate of AIDS infections from about 25 per cent to nine per cent in Masaka, Uganda. Mornings were spent organizing patients’ drugs, and afternoons were spent riding through remote areas on the back of a motorcycle to deliver care to patients. The experience had a huge impact on her.

“Africa and its people are so beautiful, and they have been unfairly ravaged by this disease,” says DeGirolamo. “My experience strengthened me wanting to go into HIV care. I really value being able to go and contribute what I can.”

Volunteering is clearly a way of life for this graduate. During her four years at UBC she also found time to join the pharmaceutical fraternity Kappa Psi and was elected its regent. Fraternity members focused on community service, serving at a Vancouver soup kitchen and doing local fundraising.

She was also elected by her peers to serve as the student representative on the board of the Canadian Pharmacists Association for two years.

DeGirolamo’s time in Uganda serving those with HIV/AIDS, however, remains a real highlight.

“The kindness of people was amazing,” says DeGirolamo. “That’s something I’ll definitely try to remember in my practice. Sometimes people just need you to listen, and acknowledge that what they are saying is important.”

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Last reviewed 28-May-2009

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