40 years behind the pharmacist's bench can be a real pain in the neck

June 15, 2010

Despite the wear and tear on most pharmacists at the bench, when new pharmacies are built, ergonomics are rarely considered.

Victoria and I were looking at old pictures. She noticed something about me that I had not been able to correct. In every picture, my head was bent a little forward and to the left.

"I know why you do that," Victoria said.

"Jim, you do it all the time. That is how you hold the phone at work."

An ergo nightmare

I had been cradling a phone between my left shoulder and my left ear for 40 years. I feared that my neck had grown wrong and that there was no hope to ever hold my head straight again.

It is unfortunate for Walmart that pharmacists and technicians do not come in a standard size. Say 5 feet 8 inches. They could situate the computer screens at an ergonomically advantageous position. The problem is that a tiny pharmacist works at the local Walmart. She always looks as if she is working on tippy-toes. I said, "Hello, Helen," the other day and she had to stretch way up to see me over the computer screen. Why not adjustable screens?

What about the 6-foot 8-inch pharmacist? Talk about being bent over. The counter would be about thigh-high for this poor guy. It must be like working in a Playskool pharmacy. CVS may still be building new stores. Can't they see the problems of solidly attached equipment? Don't they care?

Last year, I reached down to pick up a paper prescription and my fingers would not work. I rushed to the bathroom and looked at my smile in the mirror. I recited out loud a Shel Silverstein poem that I love. No stroke. Thirty minutes later, my fingers worked again. My doctor shrugged, "Probably carpal tunnel. Do you use those fingers a lot?"

Yeah, Doctor, is there a pharmacist who does not use his or her fingers?

A comfort mat for the floor of the work area is a must. You cannot even work a half-day on concrete comfortably. Think about years. Your legs will rebel and fail you if you do not take care of them. You kids have at the very least 50 years of productivity. Your legs can be the Joker. Trust me. It is all about the legs.

I hired a one-legged, one-armed pharmacist in 1973. He could open child-proof containers with one hand. He typed faster than I could. He asked for a tape recorder. That was an ergonomic issue for Scotty. He taped all Rx phone-ins so he could write them accurately. That's not a bad idea for any of us.

2009 was a bad pain year for JP. It started slowly with discomfort in my shoulders and neck and picked up speed until the all-pervading ache had me thoroughly beaten. The pain affected everything in my life. There were evenings when I was rude and disrespectful. I was impatient and tactless. I would always apologize in the morning when the pain was muted, but that didn't make me less of a dope.

"What if it is referred pain?" I whispered. "Is something seriously wrong inside?" I could not say it out loud. I was too scared.

I quit being stupid and started physical therapy early in 2010. Forty years at a pharmacy counter and my head-forward posture had me bent over. The pain was from fighting it. If I just let it go and bent over like an old man who had survived the Holocaust, the hurting would lessen.

I do the exercises religiously. I am a model patient because I want to live the rest of my life standing straight and looking forward rather than at the floor. A veteran therapist said that her best customers have been mechanics, dentists, surgeons, and pharmacists. Why wasn't I told? It was a thrill yesterday when my therapist saw me warming up and said, "Good posture, Jim."

The exercises hurt, but it is a pain-so-good. It took a crisis to get me to physical therapy. Thousands of you are in worse shape than me.

Remember Forrest Gump: "Stupid is as stupid does."

JIM PLAGAKIS is a community pharmacist in Galveston, Texas. You can e-mail him at jpgakis@hotmail.com and cc us at drugtopics@advanstar.com
. You can also check out his Web site at http://jimplagakis.com/.