Mary Walbridge, PH’74, has made a career of serving needy communities in the United States. From impoverished rural areas to inner cities, she’s sought areas where her work as a pharmacist can have a profound impact.
Walbridge’s passion for health care and community service was cultivated at a young age: Her mother, a nurse, worked in disaster response units for the American Red Cross. As a young woman she remembers watching her mother leave for the Ruskin Heights area of Kansas, where a string of tornadoes killed 59 people in May 1957.
An undergraduate education at Drake University reinforced the value of professional ethics and community service.
“From day one it was drummed into our heads: You do what you can politically, professionally and organizationally to advance and better your field,” she says.
Now Walbridge is working to improve the lives of patients abroad. In 2007, she traveled to Ghana as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. While working in the village of Kyekyewere (pronounced “che-che-wer-e”), she learned an alarming fact: The nearest hospital was 10 miles away, and the nearest maternity clinic was eight miles — a trip most villagers had to make on foot. The hospital had about 100 already-occupied beds, with 150 more patients waiting to be treated. They had only one physician on staff.
Walbridge started offering the villagers what limited medical services she could. She treated wounds, identified parasitic diseases and more — but she never had enough time to help all those in need.
“Every time our Habitat bus arrived in the morning, there was a line of people in the village waiting to see me,” Walbridge says.
Upon returning to the United States, she banded with some friends and colleagues to lay the groundwork for what has become the Walbridge Settlement Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at building a general practice clinic in Kyekyewere. Walbridge and her daughter — Erin Lockard, a physician — returned to Ghana in 2008 to discuss the project with the village chief, buy land and complete various legal requirements. While there, they treated more than 200 people in the town of 2,500. Plans for the clinic include two labor rooms and a delivery room, an area for post-natal care, a primary care practice and space for minor surgical procedures.
But the project was delayed in 2010 when Walbridge was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in plasma cells. As of early February 2012, she is waiting on a stem cell transplant that she hopes will get her back on her feet.
Walbridge acknowledges that it has been tough to put her passions on hold. But despite the setback, Walbridge’s work does not go unnoticed in the Drake community. On April 26, the Drake University National Alumni Association Board will recognize Walbridge for her work by honoring her with the inaugural Community Service Award.