Los Angeles Times

Family values

It could be said that Sheila Song's choice of career as a geriatric pharmacist is in herblood.

For it is the close relationship the Carney resident has long shared with her grandmother, Cheng Soon Song, now 89, who had a major role in Song's upbringing, and who led Song to see that there is both need and reward in working with the elderly.

The Loch Raven High School graduate, Song, 25, recently earned her Doctorate of Pharmacy after completing an intensive four-year program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore. This followed three years as an undergraduate at University of Maryland,College Park.

"There is a great growing need for pharmacists in geriatrics," Song said. "I (also) like to be with old people and helping them because, well, they basically just want someone to talk to."

Song excelled in pharmacy school and even won the 2011 Geriatrics and Gerontology Education and Research Program award for excellence in care of the older adult in the School of Pharmacy. It's one of the graduate program's highest honors,

Nicole Brandt, an associate professor of geriatric pharmacotherapy at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, has been Song's teacher and mentor for the past few years. She believes Song has definitely chosen the right profession.

"Sheila has always been driven to succeed in this field and indeed has accomplished this in a multitude of ways," Brandt said. "She developed community outreach programs helping older adults both socially as well as with meeting their medication-related needs.

"Her passion and strong clinical skills coupled with her empathy are some of the key traits needed to work in the area of geriatrics," Brandt added. "Students like Song are critical in helping to meet the needs of our aging baby boomers."

Indeed. According to American Society of Consultant Pharmacists, Song is entering a field that in coming years will play an ever more crucial part in many of our lives. Currently, according to the society of pharmacists, seniors aged 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. Meanwhile, members of the baby boomer generation are already beginning to reach age 65 and qualifying for Medicare.

'When she came, myinsomnia went away'

Big dreams often are born close to home. The woman who, more than anyone else, inspired Song in her decision to become a geriatric pharmacist is her paternal grandmother, Cheng Soon Song.

Cheng was already a widow and middle-aged when she emigrated from Korea to the U.S. with Song's parents, years before Song was born. Cheng spent her working life as a hairdresser. And though she became U.S. citizen, to this day she has never learned to speak much English.

Yet despite any eastern-western-world generational gap, Song and her grandmother have always shared a bond that is timeless, even if it is often unspoken.

Song's and Cheng's mutual affection is apparent as the two of them sit in Cheng's tiny but immaculate apartment in a Baltimore retirement facility and pore over old family photo albums. Cheng's walls are adorned with more family pictures, some from her own early years in Korea.

"She was the last child," Cheng said, glancing fondly at her granddaughter who often serves as her interpreter. "I started to raise her after she was 3 weeks old. I had insomnia, then she came, and my insomnia went away. I just paid her so much attention that my other thoughts all went away."

Sheila has an older brother and sister who were both born in Korea. They were already in high school when she was born in 1986. Both parents worked long hours — her father as an engineer at  the formerGeneral Motors Broening Highway automotive assembly plant and her mother as the owner-manager of various convenience stores and laundromats. So, the day-to-day responsibilities of raising Song were mostly taken up by her paternal grandmother.

"She says my brother and sister had left and I was alone and my mom and dad were working and they weren't there," Song said, translating for her grandmother. "But she says I was always very self-sufficient and dutiful and always learning … through the watchful eyes of God.

"I was just a latchkey kid," joked Song, who attended Pine Grove elementary and middle schools and always excelled in science and math.

But even though both parents worked long hours, she said they were always around when she needed them.

"It's probably kind of a stereotype, but Asian parents are very strict," Song said. "They put education, knowledge and good careers as goals, almost from birth, probably.

"Seeing how hard my parents were working had a lot to do with it," she said. "We weren't an extravagant family. We saved a lot and were very conscientious about what we had and what we should do. …. And we are close as a family."

Besides her family, Song credits her success to the Baltimore Public School system.

"I went to great public schools," she said. "I especially enjoyed my time at Loch Raven High School."

Sheila was 5 when Cheng moved out of their household and into the retirement facility where she's lived for the past two decades.

"I remember how much she cried when I left," Cheng recalled.

Moving on 'to do better things'

This time, it's Cheng who may have to hold back the tears.

Even when her grandmother attended her graduation ceremonies last month, Song couldn't bring herself to tell her she is about to relocate to Seattle for a year's residency. She knew it would break her grandmother's heart.

"She's bragging about me now," Song said with a laugh when the subject of her departure came up. "It's very hard to translate praise about yourself. … She is telling me that now I need to get a good job, have a husband, have kids. That's what she wishes for me.

"And she says that now I'm moving far away, it is very sad … but at least I'm going on to do better things."

Song also credits her maternal grandmother, who died about a decade ago, with help shaping her decision to become a certified geriatric pharmacist. (Both grandfathers died before Song was born.)

Her grandmothers were also in the back of her mind in her third year in pharmacy school, when she served as president of the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists and created a program called Hip Hop and Health. It was held at St. Mary's Outreach Center in Baltimore and combined entertainment and health outreach for elderly people.

"There was dancing and food, along with oral cancer screenings, medication reviews and blood pressure screenings," she said. "I also had some of my classmates come to showcase posters and talk about topics we learned about in pharmacy school, such asdiabetes and immunizations."

Song even had the opportunity to take her grandmother on as a patient and did medication therapy management for her.

"I don't think she (Cheng) was really all that impressed," Song said. "But my grandmother isn't always the most talkative or expressive person, so maybe she understood and appreciated it."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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