If she were alive today, Eric Hartsfield’s great-grandmother would watch with wonder as he became the family’s fourth-generation pharmacist on May 28.
While the commencement ceremony itself – beamed into her living room on something called a computer – would likely throw her for a loop, her amazement would center more on how much her profession had changed since she opened the first registered pharmacy in Virginia in 1924.
“Even if I just told her that pharmacists had progressed to now earning a doctoral degree, that would be pretty astonishing,” said Hartsfield, who will join this month a family line of pharmacists that spans nearly a century and also includes his mother, aunt and late-grandfather.
Realizing the level of knowledge Hartsfield gained at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the experience he holds treating patients in a clinical setting would be “really shocking” for her, Hartsfield said.
A customer sits on the soda-fountain side of Eric Hartsfield's great-grandmother's pharmacy opened in 1924.
Although he took a round-about way in joining the family legacy his great-grandmother started, Hartsfield “had faith” he was on the right path when he made the late leap toward a new career.
Love of learning leads to change
Already managing a pet store as a high-school teen, Hartsfield continued up the ladder, working in corporate store management throughout his 20s. Weary of losing promotions to less management-skilled candidates who often held unrelated degrees, he enrolled in community college to up his edge.
“When I was working on my associate degree, I just remembered how much I love learning,” he said, recalling how he made the career switch. “When I got into pharmacy school, I kind of dove in and was really committed.”
Elected class president his first year and executive vice president of Student Council his third year, Hartsfield’s time at the pharmacy school was chock full of volunteering, organizing and managing initiatives and events.
‘Teamwork makes the dream work’
A busy husband and father of Elizabeth, 4, and Roland, 1, Hartsfield said a “call to serve” that he shares with most of his fellow healthcare providers pushed him down the student-leadership track despite his demanding schedule. A well-honed ability of time-management from his previous career made it less overwhelming, he said.
That desire to help people also steered him toward clinical, rather than retail, pharmacy, he said. “I spent half my life in retail already, and I feel like making a change is really important,” said Hartsfield, chief intern of clinical pharmacy at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
“And it’s mostly because I really love the interaction with nurses and doctors and the clinical team,” he added. “Getting to work as a part of a team to take care of patients who are acutely sick feels like a force multiplier. The idea that teamwork makes the dream work – I should probably get a tattoo that says that.”
Training during a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the height of Hartsfield’s education. While it created challenges for Hartsfield and his student peers, it also brought unique training opportunities to his class.
Channel 4's Kathy Walsh glances away for her Novavax shot from Eric Hartsfield. Both took part in a clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine.
For one of Hartsfield’s rotations, for example, he took part in a Novavax clinical trial aimed at preventing COVID-19. The experience included making a difference in a global pandemic, practicing alongside cross-disciplinary student peers and working with the head of investigational pharmacy at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, he said.
“My favorite thing from that (clinical-trial experience) was realizing that people really had no idea whether they got the placebo or the vaccine,” said Hartsfield, who was one of the unblinded providers in the trial. Most participants would offer their prediction on the second visit for the two-dose shot. “It was amazing how often people mis-guessed, which really goes to show you that placebo-based trials are effective.”
Breaking the pill-counter perception
The pandemic also helped overcome a common misperception that plagues his profession – that pharmacists just count pills, Hartsfield said. Besides being key players in a historic vaccination campaign, pharmacists’ knowledge became more appreciated during the pandemic, he said.
“Getting to work as a part of a team to take care of patients who are acutely sick feels like a force multiplier.” – Eric Hartsfield
“We were the key people to go to in the hospital during my rotations for information on any of the up-and-coming medical treatments. We stayed up to date on all the literature. We know how vaccines work, and what vaccine schedules are,” he said. “I think the pandemic really brought pharmacists to the forefront.”
Hartsfield matched with St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital in Michigan for his residency and said his family is ready for the next chapter. “I’m really looking forward to diving into critical care and emergency medicine and infectious disease.”
As to whether his daughter would continue the family legacy, Hartsfield said, “Right now, she still wants to be a princess when she grows up.” But, she’s really into a book on how the body works now, too, he said. “So, there’s still hope.”
What does a pharmacist do? This video starring Elizabeth Hartsfield will tell you
Converted to virtual learning at the onset of the pandemic, Eric Hartsfield got creative, combining one assignment on explaining the pharmacist's role to the layperson with quality father time. He directed a video starring his little girl as the pharmacist. Watch, learn and enjoy!