McComb is a small US town in Mississippi, down in the south of the state near the border with Louisiana. The main street is named after Elvis Presley, and it was the birthplace of bluesman Bo Diddley. It was a violent flashpoint in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.
It was here that schoolgirl Tina Brock – now the new Professor of Pharmacy Education and Practice at Monash University, with a dancing Elvis doll in her office – landed a part-time job that would shape her life, and the lives of many of her students.
She started out serving the ice-creams at McComb’s Medical Centre Pharmacy, run by a man called Sam Daniel, who would become her most important mentor. “I was getting too fat doing that job,” she says, “so I moved onto stringing the tennis racquets.”
She didn’t know it yet, but Sam’s small-town set-up was a model of integrated healthcare, even back in the 1980s. There was a medical centre and GP joined to it, and an ophthalmologist in the same strip. The town’s only hospital was directly over the road. “I grew up with healthcare always being connected,” she says. Sam was trusted and respected. “The physicians and the patients counted on him.”
She eventually got to work in the actual pharmacy and had picked it as her career. “It seemed like such an important role in the community,” she says, “the person who controls the medicines.” She went away to university in Oxford, Mississippi – where William Faulkner came from – studying pharmacy but also German. “There should be no fences between the humanities and the sciences,” she says. “There is an art and a science to healthcare.”
“It seemed like such an important role in the community, the person who controls the medicines.”
As a student, Tina intervened in what Sam Daniel describes as an “interesting international problem”. Her church ran a program in Mexico, supporting medical clinics. But the drug samples shipped over by American doctors were lying unused because the Mexican doctors couldn’t read the labels. “Tina and others built shelves in the storage unit,” says Sam, who now lives in Texas, “translated the names of the drugs into Spanish and organised them alphabetically. She is a natural teacher.”
Once she graduated, Sam hired Tina to do all the clinical services at his store. “Blood sugars, blood pressures, vaccinations, pregnancy consultations,” she says. “A bit of everything.” It cemented her approach.
“It's why I have absolute belief in what pharmacy can do at a community level. We need great pharmacists in hospitals, but what we need to do is keep everyone but the sickest people out of hospital. This little 1990s pharmacy in McComb, Mississippi, is that potential. When healthcare providers work together, patients get the best care.”
She developed what could be called a very personal angle on pharmacy. “She has a great sense of humour,” says Sam, “which she uses to encourage others to excel. She's fun to be around because she enjoys everyone’s company and makes them feel important. Thank goodness she's an educator and is helping others learn how to be better.”
In 1992, Tina moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and started working as a hospital pharmacist, one week on, one week off. On her week off she again worked for Sam Daniel, who had become a lobbyist for the state’s pharmacy association, pushing the idea of integrated care. After she made a speech at an American Pharmacists Association meeting, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill poached her to run its new pharmacy skills lab program. She stayed 10 years and earned herself a doctorate in education while she was at it.
Then it was off to London to teach an international master's course at University College. Mainly it was pharmacists from sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. “My job was to teach them clinical and policy training so they could go back to their own countries to be change agents.” Tina then went to work for an American NGO charged with improving the pharmacy industry from the ground up, from supply chains right through to tertiary training. That work took her from Afghanistan to Namibia, connecting with health professionals, support cadres, educators and others along the way.
By now the rural girl from Mississippi had a global reputation as a great communicator and innovator in pharmacy education. Monash’s Professor Bill Charman, Dean of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science, knew this, and had her in his sights. “It was never a matter of if Tina would come to Monash, it was a matter of when,” he says.
But first she went to San Francisco and the University of California as associate dean for global health and also for teaching and learning. Professor Charman, all the way across the world at Monash in Melbourne, finally got her on staff in January 2017, as Professor of Pharmacy Education and Practice.
“I never have trouble convincing anyone to come and work here,” he says. “We have a team-based environment, and the creativity of that team means people want to be here. There’s no university that does stuff like we do – as a team – on this planet.”
It all started in McComb, Mississippi. Tina Brock carries the huge debt to Sam Daniel and his Medical Centre Pharmacy, and his forward-thinking ideas on healthcare. She feels as if she's come full circle and now imparts wisdom learned from him to her students at Monash. “I carry Mississippi in my heart and in my mouth,” she says, referring to her deep southern accent, which is still very strong despite many years away. “I would not have had my journey if I hadn’t come from that special place.”