Still going strong after 214 years together: The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Public Health Service

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Written by Lisa Novak, Coast Guard media relations.

Cmdr. Aaron Middlekauff uses a pharmacy counting and verification system. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lisa Novak.
Cmdr. Aaron Middlekauff uses a pharmacy counting and verification system. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lisa Novak.

When you deal with your Coast Guard pharmacist, you’re dealing with someone who has more than just medication behind the pharmacy window. There’s a whole lot of history and maybe a hurricane or an earthquake back there, too.

Coast Guard pharmacists are members of the U.S. Public Health Service, which began when Congress created the Marine Hospital Service in 1798 and placed it in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Marine Hospital Service officers maintained medicine chests at each station of the Life-Saving Service, an original component of the Coast Guard.

Today, the Public Health Service and the Coast Guard continue their centuries-old relationship with 15 of the Public Health Services’ more than 1,000 pharmacists providing services to the Coast Guard far beyond medicine chests.

“My job is anything but typical,” said Capt. Pamela Stewart-Kuhn, a pharmacist stationed in Mobile, Ala., who has spent 19 of her 21 years in the Public Health Service with the Coast Guard. “While I am responsible for processing more than 100 prescriptions per day, that is just a small part of my job.”

Stewart-Kuhn is responsible for meeting the needs of 17 independent health services technicians at shore units and on cutters along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the clinic in New Orleans, and manages the immunizations, logistics and budget needs for the pharmacy in her area of responsibility.

“Of course, my patients want their medicine, but I also know that my interactions with my patients are providing a service to others, whether through providing resources and information, providing a kind word of encouragement or simply just listening. After all, our primary job is service, not just to the Coast Guard, but to our patients,” she said.

The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service is an elite team of more than 6,000 well-trained, highly qualified public health professionals.
The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service is an elite team of more than 6,000 well-trained, highly qualified public health professionals.

As the Coast Guard pharmacist for six years in Cape May, N.J., Cmdr. Daniel Hasenfang values the opportunity to serve Coast Guard members, families and retirees, as well as mentoring enlisted active duty members. While the Coast Guard and the Public Health Service are separate entities, Hasenfang sees the line as blurred. “I greatly appreciate the opportunity to serve with today’s Coast Guard,” he said. “Even though I’m in the Public Health Service, I hope the Coast Guard knows that what I do day to day is based on their core values.”

He also enjoys working in such a supportive community of pharmacists. “I am the only pharmacist in Cape May, but it is amazing how quickly I can reach out to another [Coast Guard] pharmacist and receive answers to questions. It’s a tightly-knit group,” said Hasenfang.

Being an active member of both the Coast Guard and the Public Health Service can double the rewards in career satisfaction. “We actively engage both and fulfill our commitment to uphold the Public Health Service mission of ‘protecting, promoting and advancing the health and safety of our nation’,” said Cmdr. Aaron Middlekauff, the Coast Guard Pharmacist of the Year for 2011. Middlekauff transferred from the Air Force to the Public Health Service in 2007 and worked at the Alaska Native Medical Center for two years before taking his first Coast Guard assignment at Air Station Miami in 2009. He is stationed at the Coast Guard Headquarters clinic in Washington.

“I decided to become a Public Health Service pharmacist to continue serving my country in the nation’s foremost health service. We are driven by a passion for public service,” he said.

Coast Guard pharmacists are members of the U.S. Public Health Service, which began when Congress created the Marine Hospital Service in 1798 and placed it in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lisa Novak.
Coast Guard pharmacists are members of the U.S. Public Health Service, which began when Congress created the Marine Hospital Service in 1798 and placed it in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lisa Novak.

That passion for public service among Coast Guard pharmacists was strong during recent disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Stewart-Kuhn’s Coast Guard clinic in Mobile escaped massive damage but had no electricity for days with temperatures in the 90s. Stewart-Kuhn and her staff had to use hand-written labels or the patients’ own prescription bottles in order to provide medication until the computers were back online.

“When most people evacuated for Katrina, they only took the usual three-day supply of clothing, snacks and prescription medication,” said Stewart-Kuhn. “The patients came in with a shell-shocked look about them. They never expected they would not be able to go home again, or that their communities could literally vanish in the space of a few hours.”

Middlekauff said a rewarding time for him in the Coast Guard involved the challenges presented during the Haitian earthquake in 2010. “It was a team approach…There was rapid, coordinated and effective execution of superior performance of the Coast Guard assets, which included a collective and collaborative pharmacy piece. It was a vital and successful support of Operation Unified Response and Operation South East Watch during the Haitian earthquake relief efforts,” he said.

With so many responsibilities tasked to Coast Guard pharmacists and with declining budgets and scarce personnel resources, pharmacists continue the unofficial motto of “doing more with less,” said Capt. Deborah Thompson, a Public Health Service pharmacist and chief of the Coast Guard pharmacy program in Washington.

“Pharmacists are the dispensers of products and knowledge, providers’ extenders, instructors, support for independent health services technicians and budget gatekeepers. I am proud of our pharmacy officers and feel very blessed to have such a dedicated and quality team supporting the pharmacy profession in the United States Coast Guard,” she said.

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