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Class of 2018: Legacy of gifted pharmacy student lives on

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Published on 05 July 2018

Matthew Aiken
Matthew Aiken

The Jemma O'Sullivan Award for Care and Compassion in the Practice of Pharmacy is presented each year to a graduate who has demonstrated these qualities during their degree course. Jemma O’ Sullivan was just 22 when she was killed in a motorway crash in 2010.

To mark a lasting legacy for Jemma, her parents Vincent and Margaret, sponsor this special award each year.

This year, the award, which celebrates the caring qualities shown by Jemma during her own degree course, was presented to 24-year-old Matthew, during the graduation ceremonies at the Stadium of Light.

Matthew said: “I’m thrilled to receive this award, it’s very special. I chose this career because I wanted to make a difference to peoples’ lives in healthcare and show them that I care about their treatment.”

Pharmacy students go out on practice placements throughout their MPharm programme as well as meeting with patients in the classroom setting. The University asks the placement tutors and patients to nominate any student they felt stood out for their compassion and interaction with patients each year. They write a supporting statement for their nominations. The academic staff then vote for which student they would like to win based on the nomination statements.

Matthew, from Seaham, demonstrated that care, empathy and good communication skills with patients, asking relevant questions, appearing interested and enthusiastic without being intrusive during a number of pharmacy placements in the community, at independent outlets and at hospital pharmacy settings.

He explains: “I have always been a good talker and able to put people at ease. You are dealing with patients from such a range of health conditions, from stroke patients to those with severe mental health issues. But being able to help ease their concern and spend time talking to them reaps huge rewards. It’s a fantastic career!

“With is award I feel I have left my mark on this university and I’m graduating on a real personal high.”

Matthew, the first in his family to graduate, was presented with a special glass gift as well as a cheque to support his future career. This is the fourth year that the award has been presented.

Kathryn Davison, Team Leader – Pharmacy Practice & Clinical Therapeutics at the University of Sunderland, said: “Matthew was nominated for his caring approach to patients this year. His nomination highlighted that he had an excellent patient approach and put the patients at ease. The patients also described Matthew as friendly and easy to chat to.”

A large glass memorial, created at National Glass Centre, has also been permanently placed in the foyer of the University’s Sciences Complex. Recipients of the annual award have their names engraved onto a plaque that stands next to the memorial.

Jemma’s parents were very keen that the award didn’t necessarily reflect the top academic performance, but was about demonstrating the caring and compassionate qualities of a pharmacist. These were the qualities Jemma possessed; a friendly person who was easy to talk to. 

Jemma’s father Vincent said: “Jemma was a bright and intelligent young woman who brought nothing but joy to everyone who had the pleasure of meeting her. We felt this project encapsulates her memory, allowing us in some way to continue her good work and preserve what she represented.”

Matthew will now embark on his pre-registration as a clinical pharmacist at Wells Pharmacy in Sunderland over the next 12 months.

Matthew Aitken

Matthew Aitken had wanted to be a doctor for as long as he could remember, but when he didn’t quite achieve the A-level science grades he needed at Durham Sixth Form, he decided to look for alternative opportunities in healthcare.

Pharmacy seemed like the next natural step for him, given his desire to work within the healthcare profession. When he was offered a place at all four universities he’d applied for across the UK, he was in no doubt the University of Sunderland was the place to study, given its reputation for pharmacy.

“The MPharm course was perfect, mixing academic studies with placements,” Matthew says. “I never saw myself working in an office, I wanted every day to be different and this course has certainly provided that. The role of a pharmacist is changing dramatically and the clinical teaching on the course massively reflects this.”

While Matthew threw himself into his studies, he admits struggling with a difficult module in the third year. However, having to resit the module turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Matthew as he says it helped him grow as a person.

“That was probably life’s first big setback for me, but made me realise what I needed to do. I also spent the time to work in healthcare centre, dealing with patients from all walks of life, so it certainly gave me perspective. We were dealing with 30,000 pharmacy items a month, it was intense but gave me huge experience. I was also given the opportunity to deal with patient enquiries by myself, which was a great confidence boost. We dealt with such a wide variety of people from overcoming communication barriers with stroke patients to dealing with those who have severe mental health issues.

“I truly felt I’d found my calling in life at this point, failing that module helped me learn things about myself I wouldn’t have learned. It made me much more rounded.

“I also understood why the lecturers and the course was so intense and challenging, it prepares you for the world of work, you need to be ready for the challenges of modern healthcare.”

Despite not coming from a family of healthcare professionals, Matthew says his parents have supported him all the way. He credits trips with his mum to a nursing home where she was a carer, when he was younger, in helping him gain an understanding of people’s health needs and challenges.

“I think I have always been able to talk to people and think that’s really helped me in my career, especially during the placements at community pharmacies and in clinical hospital settings.

“Also the patient session at university were so helpful.” Matthew recalls one lady who attended a session who revealed that her mum had died, her son had killed himself and her sister had died of cancer and within six months her second son killed himself.

“Some of the students struggled with these tough case studies and did not know what to say, she was left utterly on her own, but when she told you that story – that’s when I just start talking,” explained Matthew. “I think that’s where my strengths come into play, I’m a good talker and can put people at ease. This job is more than just about prescribing medicines - you’re dealing with people’s lives, it’s crucial to be able to communicate with them.”

Matthew will begin his pre-registration later this year with Wells Pharmacy in Sunderland and hopes in three years’ time to be able to return to Sunderland to complete a Post Graduate Independent Prescribing Course, to make him more of a comprehensive healthcare professional.

Jemma O’Sullivan

Jemma, from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, was a passenger in a Citroen Berlingo on the M8, near Warmsworth, Doncaster, in September 2010, when a lorry crashed into it. The driver, who was texting at the time, was jailed for five years after admitting causing death by dangerous driving.

Since her death her family and friends have raised more than £100,000 to support a hospice pharmacy in South Africa treating people with HIV/AIDS.

Her father Vincent said: “The year before she died, Jemma had volunteered at an HIV hospice crèche, where there were 300 children, 80 per cent had HIV/AIDS, next door to a hospice in Pretoria; she had an incredible experience there and learned to listen and talk to patients, that was her great strength.”

“We decided to support the Leratong Hospice in Jemma’s memory, raising £100k, and renovated the pharmacy, stocking it with drugs for the next four years. It’s officially been called ‘Jemma’s Pharmacy’, there’s a lovely plaque at the site.”

He added: “We were also supported by South Yorkshire Police in an initiative called Jemma Bear.

“Some 500 teddy bears have been produced in memory of Jemma and will be used by police family liaison officers across South Yorkshire to comfort children involved in collisions on the roads.

“After discussion with South Yorkshire Police, we felt a toy bear may be a comfort and a perhaps a distraction to children trying to deal with shock or possible grief.”

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