Trailblazing a Path in Natural Medicine

Last fall, Shirley Heschuk was presented with the Faculty’s Outstanding Alumni Award as a recognition of her outstanding contributions to the pharmacy profession.

By Sandra Pysklywyc

Shirley's expertise and research in nutrition led her to develop the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences first module on nutrition, Pharmacy 327, which is still used in today's curriculum.
Shirley’s expertise and research in nutrition led her to develop the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences first module on nutrition, Pharmacy 327, which is still used in today’s curriculum.

Last fall, Shirley Heschuk (BSc Pharm ’64, MSc ’67) was presented with the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award. The award is presented to “alumni in recognition of outstanding contributions to their professions, their communities, to society at large, or to the University of Alberta Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences”. Heschuk is a former faculty member and popular professor who is internationally known for her work in complementary medicine.

Shirley Heschuk credits her career in pharmacy to her upbringing in a small town in Alberta. She initially wanted to be a medical doctor; however, her career path was altered when her local druggist, the late Len Corkery (BSc Pharm ’55), suggested that “she take pharmacy in order to have a great summer job while in medical school.”

Heschuk, who was interested in both pharmacy and medicine, enrolled in pharmacy school first, as she was influenced by the role Corkery played in the community and “how he helped everyone.”

“He talked to patients about any health condition—farmers about pesticides and parents about which vitamins to give their children,” says Heschuk.

While she was accepted in the then-Faculty of Medicine, she decided pharmacy was her career path.

After graduation, Heschuk was not eligible for pharmacy licensure until she was 21, so that “summer job wasn’t going to work out for a while.”

However, fate intervened and Heschuk was approached by a couple of professors in pharmacology to do graduate studies.

“I was really interested in drugs and the body,” says Heschuk, who received her MSc in pharmacology three years later.

While Heschuk stepped away from the profession for a number of years to be a stay-at-home mom, she always kept current on trends in the profession of pharmacy and maintained her license.

She was recruited to teach pharmacology part-time in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine to nursing, rehabilitation medicine, medical and dental students in 1982.

That led to a full-time position with the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences teaching law, jurisprudence, ethics, communication skills and over-the-counter medicines.

She was asked to serve as the pharmacy representative on the Bioethics Steering Committee for the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre at the U of A, which enabled her to take a major role in the development of the first code of ethics for Alberta pharmacists in 1996.

Heschuk also became involved in a number of committees within the Alberta College of Pharmacists including: licensing examination, internship, public affairs, regulatory affairs, registration and the code of ethics subcommittee.

She was a very popular professor with students for her unique teaching methods, which came from Heschuk’s philosophy that it is important for future pharmacists to understand natural health products (NHPs) including herbal remedies, vitamins, minerals and other supplements.

“The general public comes to pharmacists for advice, so I thought our students should be well-versed on the actions and interactions of these,” says Heschuk.

The class, which was called “The Herbology Class”, saw Heschuk gather teapots from colleagues to steep teas and prepare infusions to “ensure students had firsthand experience sampling different natural products.

“Discussion on the samples and what medical purposes each would serve were a popular part of the course,” she says. She created disease-based case studies for students, who then in turn “used their evidence-based-medicine skills to assess literature and discuss the appropriate use of the product in each particular case.”

Guest lecturers often included pharmacists, physicians, lawyers, government regulators, pharmacy and nutrition professors, a naturopath and a Chinese medical doctor.

Her research and expertise in nutrition led her to develop the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences’ first module on nutrition, Pharmacy 327, which is still used in today’s curriculum. In addition, the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA) contracted her to write chapters on weight management, sports nutrition and special diets for their publications, Patient Self-Care and Compendium of Therapeutics for Minor Ailments.

Heschuk also was instrumental in collaborating in the area of integrative health scholarship (research and education).

“Shirley helped create, review and edit the inaugural 30-hour curriculum for the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Stream of IntD Interprofessional Health Team Development,” says Sunita Vohra, director, Integrative Health Institute and centennial professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “Her contributions helped shape and develop an innovative stream that was well-received by students and is consistently over-subscribed.”

Vohra notes that Shirley is “a national leader and pioneer in her early recognition of the importance of natural health products to pharmacists and those in training.”

Heschuk was a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) co-investigator and worked with principal investigator Heather Boon, who is now the dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, to study NHPs and pharmacy practice.

In addition to teaching, Heschuk continued her writing on complementary medicine and nutrition, leading to her recognition in this area for her work both nationally and internationally, including Italy and Japan.

“My work internationally included developing a medical supplement advisor course for Japanese physicians and pharmacists, which came about after several exchanges with Japanese students and our faculty,” says Heschuk.

Her colleague, Cheryl Cox, convinced her to help develop an interdisciplinary course for pharmacy and nutrition students to be taught in Italy. As this course evolved and other instructors participated, the group was awarded the 2013 Association of Faculties of Pharmacy of Canada “Janssen Innovation Award” in recognition of innovation in pharmacy education. Today, this course continues to give pharmacy students the opportunity to travel and study.

Retired in 2007 officially, Heschuk remains very active in the profession. She writes and reviews case studies as well as updates chapters for CPhA on sports nutrition, weight management and special diets.

Heschuk has set up a scholarship in her name and is an active organizer for the Class of 1964. She is working with her fellow classmates and alumni from the Classes of 1963 and 1965 to set up a bursary for current students.

While there are many highlights from her career and she’s proud of her global work and teaching, Heschuk says that “winning the alumni award is really special, and the fact that people remember me is wonderful.”

Source: University of Alberta