Pharmacy graduate motivated by heartbreaking family experience, desire to care for others

Marie Rodriguez completed her PharmD studies while caring for ailing parents

Like many who consider a career in a health care field, Marie Rodriguez always had an interest in caring for others. Unlike most, the graduating URI College of Pharmacy student has unfortunately gotten plenty of hands-on experience in her own home, which has only hardened her resolve and given her even greater appreciation for selfless health care professionals.

“I always liked the medical field, but knew I couldn’t be a nurse, and I didn’t think I wanted to be a doctor, so pharmacy was another outlet to help people and work with patients,” Rodriguez said. “And this year, caregiving has made me appreciate nurses beyond capacity, because I can’t do this the rest of my life, so give them a lot of credit.”

Rodriguez was unexpectedly thrust into a caregiving role when her mother, Linda, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in March 2020, followed by an autoimmune disease that left her unable to walk. Rodriguez had already been helping care for her dad, Tony, who had been paralyzed five years ago, leaving her and her brother, Kevin, to provide care for both their parents while she finished up her last year-and-a-half in the demanding Doctor of Pharmacy program at URI.

Rodriguez spent time between virtual classes and clinical rotations driving her mom to chemotherapy treatments, speaking with doctors, handling her medications and generally taking care of the home until her mom unfortunately passed away in December. At the same time, she and her brother helped a visiting nurse with their father’s care.

Marie Rodriguez is pictured with her mother, Linda, her father, Tony, and her brother, Kevin.
Marie Rodriguez is pictured with her mother, Linda, her father, Tony, and her brother, Kevin.

“I don’t know how anyone who doesn’t have a medical person in their life deals with cancer,” the Andover, New Jersey native said. “We handled all the driving, the going to chemo, talking to the doctors, helping with the medications – the chemo meds themselves, plus the medication for the side effects. I talked to the nephrologists, the oncologists, everyone. And then there’s the emotional side of it. But we have one tough family. We just did what we had to do. I hope no one ever has to be in that position, but when you are, you just do it.”

On top of all that, Rodriguez was also navigating in new territory along with everyone else once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She was attending virtual classes and clinical rotations while trying to finish the 0-6 PharmD program — which allows students to earn bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in that timespan, and was a key motivator for Rodriguez to apply to URI in the first place.

“I was looking at 0-6 pharmacy programs, and when I visited URI, I fell in love with the pharmacy building itself. It’s really pretty and new, and the SIM lab was really impressive,” Rodriguez said, noting that the multiple opportunities at a university like URI was also attractive. “Plus, being close to the beach is nice.”

During her time at URI, Rodriguez immersed herself in the opportunities afforded URI students. She spent a semester abroad, played on the ultimate frisbee team and was a program assistant at the Aquatic Center. She is a member of the Rho-Chi Pharmacy Honors Society, the American Pharmacists Association, and the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists. She has done clinical rotations at South County Hospital, South Bay Nursing Home and at a hospital in her native New Jersey under the tutelage of Clinical Professor Erica Estus, who she identifies as an important mentor.

“I have enjoyed getting to know Marie during her time at URI and watch her spread her wings in the College of Pharmacy. She has consistently been involved in many College events and activities these past six years, and was always there, willing to help, with a smile and a positive attitude,” Estus said. “Marie’s experience navigating the healthcare system as a family advocate and vaccinating many vulnerable Rhode Islanders during the pandemic has provided unique insight she never anticipated when she began this journey. She is highly respected by our entire College of Pharmacy community, and her authenticity and genuine, caring nature shine through in everything she does.”

Like most college students, Rodriguez was also forced to deal with the impact of COVID, which meant trying to make the most out of a socially distanced experience, including virtual classes.

“Remote learning is so difficult. It wasn’t like going to class. You really had to be self-motivated to sit down and watch that two-hour lecture. And then exams were so hard; no one knew how to deal with exams; open book or not, and timing. It was hard,” Rodriguez said.

At the same time, the pandemic presented opportunities to health care students. Once the COVID-19 vaccines were available, Rodriguez spent most weekends vaccinating people at South County Hospital, Clinica Esperanza in Providence and Asthenis Pharmacy in Central Falls. Rodriguez was also getting an education at home, expanding the experience she brings with her into her career.

“Actually, I’m almost thankful for COVID, because it let my brother and me be home during the worst of it all to help take care of everything,” Rodriguez said. “And actually, at URI we were studying cancer at the same time, so it helped me a lot. I was learning and experiencing it. It was also really hard; a lot of tears. But it got me through it; the fact that I was in it motivated me to really, actually learn it.”

After graduation, Rodriguez plans to return to New Jersey to continue helping care for her dad while seeking pharmacy opportunities. She would like to remain at her local hospital where she is currently doing her clinical rotations, and COVID has given her a new appreciation for public health. “My goal is to apply to a hospital, but I’ll take what I can get,” she said.

Regardless of where she ends up, Rodriguez said she feels prepared for the step, thanks to her family experience and the education she has received at URI.

“I would come back to URI in a heartbeat,” Rodriguez said, noting she also convinced her brother to attend the university. “The Pharmacy program definitely prepares you really well. The professors are so nice; you can talk to them about any questions and really have a connection. Even on rotations, everyone always notices that you’re from URI. They like URI students. I didn’t know a lot about pharmacy going into the program. So learning all the different outlets like hospital and ambulatory care was exciting to me. And with COVID, we’ve been kind of forced into being more hands-on, which is a great experience. I’m excited to see where I end up.”