P.J. Pitts, a member of Pacific University's first pharmacy class in 2009, has spent more than two years working on recovery and relief efforts in Haiti.Wanda Laukkanen | Writer
It’s been almost 2 ½ years since a 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, but the relief effort is far from over. Only about half of the debris from the quake has been cleared, according to Oxfam. Only a fraction of the promised foreign aid has arrived, and more than a half million people are still living in tents, lacking basic necessities such as food, water or soap, let alone jobs.
P.J. Pitts, a 2009 graduate of Pacific University’s first pharmacy class, has been working to help since the beginning. She volunteered as a pharmacist in Haiti immediately after the quake and is continuing to work on trainings and projects for multiple humanitarian organizations in that country. She currently teaches classes at a new pharmacy school in New York, where she mentors American pharmacy students who spend two-week sessions helping in Haiti. She also is completing the paperwork to create a nonprofit charitable organization for Haiti.
A native Oregonian, Pitts started her journey as a child, developing a love of science through her family. Her grandmother, she said, was one of the first female science professors at San Jose State University.
As a child, Pitts played I Spy with Latin words. On vacations in the California desert, she and her siblings gathered and dissected coyote scat to see what the animals ate.
“I didn’t know other people hadn’t done things like that,” Pitts said. “My family definitely had an influence on me.”
Pitts took lots of science and math classes at Portland Community College and graduated from Portland State University with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary science. As an undergrad, she studied Spanish for a quarter in Mexico, then came back to Oregon and worked as a pharmacy technician for several years while in school. She discovered that the Spanish helped her when many Spanish-speaking clients came to the pharmacy and needed help interpreting drug information.
But along with the science, Pitts also found a flair “for the artistic part of the brain.” In high school, she did theater, sang and, for three years, and took part in Pacific University’s Music in May, a long-time music festival for high school students from around the Northwest.
When she first interviewed as a possible pharmacy student on the Forest Grove campus, she said, “I knew where everything was…and it brought back some of my happiest memories. I knew I belonged at Pacific.
“When I showed up for pharmacy school, I felt I was going home.”
Pitts completed her doctorate in pharmacy as part of Pacific’s first class from the School of Pharmacy and went to work locally.
When the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, Pitts worked with an organization called Project Medishare, volunteering to meet the immediate needs at a trauma hospital in Haiti. According to her blog, she worked in a tent hospital in the days after the quake, helping improvise medical care with few supplies and little electricity.
As time went on, she said, she realized that a long-term health organization would be the key to maintaining good health care in that country.
She began working with Haitian community groups to provide health education and clinics.