Mary-Jo Hilyer photo Cathie Hamm displays her 2018 Excellence in Patient Care Award.

Pharmacist Cathie Hamm recognized for patient care during B.C. wildfires

Hamm returned to Williams Lake during evacuations to help relief efforts

On Friday afternoon at Kornak and Hamm’s Pharmacy, there was hardly a person who entered the store without bee-lining for pharmacist Cathie Hamm to give her a hug, a handshake and a general congratulations.

Hamm was honoured on May 25 with the 2018 Excellence in Patient Care Award, presented by the BC Pharmacy Association. The award recognizes a B.C pharmacist who has “gone above and beyond for ongoing excellence in patient care.”

Recognized not only for her general care for patients in the community, Hamm was also acknowledged for her work during the wildfires of 2017, when she returned to the community during the evacuation to help serve patients who stayed, as well as those who were spread throughout the province.

Hamm said that while she struggles with awards like this, the recognition is gratifying.

“It’s a relief, because so much happened last summer and it did affect me — I think it affected us all more than we realized — so it was gratifying just getting other people in the province to realize what happened to us and how hard we did work through the whole thing. That it is finally getting some attention.”

Hamm was in the pharmacy when the fires started, when a client told her to step outside and take a look at the smoke. Hamm immediately called her partner, Mary-Jo Hilyer, with no answer.

The family lives across the highway from the Coyote Rock golf course and the fire was distressingly close.

“She phoned me and said I need you here, right now,” said Hamm. It’s a memory that still causes her voice to choke up with emotion, though she is quick to laugh describing trying to catch one of the couple’s three cats with water bombers circling overhead.

For the next week, Hamm said she spent plenty of time on the phone, answering questions from pharmacies across the province and country where people had left and evacuated to.

“I have to say that every pharmacy, and I talked to a lot of them last summer in this province, was helping people out and I can’t say enough good about them.”

She’s also quick to credit her fellow workers at Kornak and Hamm’s, some of whom were evacuated themselves and offered to still come in to work.

As roads closed, Hamm and a friend made an emergency trip for prescriptions up to Prince George, talking their way through road blocks for prescriptions for people stuck in the surrounding areas.

“As the town was shutting down over that week, things kept shrinking and shrinking and shrinking,” said Hamm. They supplied people with medications on their way out of town, talked people out of stockpiling extra medications, and transferred medications up to where people were staying.

“The hardest part was replacing medications for people who had lost everything; people whose houses had burned to the ground the night before and replacing their insulin and by-the-way they missed their insulin dose last night and what to do about it.”

Read more: Kornak and Hamm’s Pharmacy open for business in Williams Lake

It’s easy to imagine Hamm helping those patients with the same gentleness, care and good humour she’s known for outside of emergency situations.

Hamm evacuated to Kelowna, heading down the Highway 24 hill outside of Little Fort on July 15 with the rest of Williams Lake, her family, three dogs and three cats.

Away from the smoke, Hamm soon found herself wanting to return.

“I knew people were still here and if they were still there and helping why can’t I be? I want to help. I want to do something.”

With Hilyer supporting her, Hamm was invited back into the community while it was still evacuated.

She reopened Saturday morning, one week after the town was evacuated.

“People came out of the woodwork,” she said.

While stocking prescriptions for people still in the area, she also helped supply the nurse practitioner out west who was taking care of the remaining un-evacuated communities whose exit routes had been cut off. She even found time to water friends’ plants.

For three days she worked alone, until another member of the team got a pass and was able to join her.

Hamm said the support she had from Hilyer during the entire experience was crucial.

“She kept us at work going during the first week,” she said.

“She’s a partner in the business as well — it’s a family business — and even more important was her support during the fires.”

Hamm said she still gets emotional when she thinks about the wildfires, but said she’s feeling way better.

“Just the recognition that all this happened really helped clear it in my mind. Just having people know what we went through.”

Kornak and Hamm’s, and by extension Hamm herself, is known for the care given to clients on a day-to-day first-name basis and Hamm is extremely proud of that.

It’s for that reason she works as hard as she does on a regular basis, but it’s also why she did what she did during the wildfires.

“It’s my town. What else can I say?”

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