Pharmacists face the same challenges after 40 years

September 15, 2008

Angry customers and overwork are a fact of life for retail pharmacists, who end up serving as technicians, cashiers, and anything else that's needed.

Key Points

"I can see that you're busy," she said, "But you did promise." She gave me a face, like a lover who had been deceived. "I'm not mad, though." She shook her finger at me. This is a gesture that I don't like and will resist every time. I am a pharmacist. A medical professional. This time, I took it like a man. I tolerated the wagging finger with a tight smile.

"I am sorry." What else could I say? I wouldn't promise 10 minutes to the next person. The waiting time had increased to an hour. Even Leslie Gore, singing "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to," didn't get me to lighten up. My company plays 1950s and '60s music all day. Very smart. People spend money when they feel good, and the boomers from those decades have the money. Finally, this attractive blonde gave me a winning grin.

"I hope so," she replied.

"An attitude like yours will reward you."

I smiled and returned her credit card.

"I have nowhere to go," she admitted. "It was actually entertaining watching you scramble around in there doing five jobs. Where is your help?"

I smiled. It was a gallows grin.

"She passed out around six o'clock. She was at the cash register. I heard a patient gasp. I looked and she was on her back on the floor. I'm all alone until 10."

We talked briefly until another car drove up and she had to leave the drive-up window.

That was last night. It was a multitasking nightmare at the drugstore corral. I went from technician duties to cashiering to pharmacist duties to filling the prescriptions to the drive-through to both prescription and over-the-counter counseling to cowpoke and everything and anything else that a combination pharmacist-technician-cashier might have to do.

If you're new to this game, I can tell you that it's no different in the 21st century from the way it was four decades ago. You're the golden child if this has never happened to you. It's better for your health if you fall down laughing rather than take it personally. If you indulge in resentment, you'll go home to your spouse and act badly. It is not his fault. Leave him alone. Go to your room if you can't be civil.

Working all alone in the evening has been an occasional part of my life since my time at Wentling's Pharmacy on Main Street, way back in my days as a newbie. A couple decades were my coffee years. By seven o'clock, it was cold and sludgy and I still drank it. I liked the buzz. I got used to the bitter taste of old coffee. I counted on it. It was downright Pavlovian. Cold, bad coffee still gives me flight-or-fight vibrations.

I learned that it took a particular talent to actually get the job done under bad circumstances, and I got some kind of perverted pleasure out of it. Having no help was one thing. A patient who is as mean and nasty as a teenage bully was another. It was like the dog pile on the rabbit sometimes. I was the wounded animal, limping after the first go at my neck. They saw my weakness, and they growled. Heaven forbid that I should have problems with an insurance card. This is retail pharmacy, like it or not. I know that it is not dignified. I know that there is no self-respect in this. Your integrity may be compromised. It is the way it is. I'm just reporting. Don't get mad at me.

And then I did a stupid thing. I came home at 10:30, ate too much comfort food, and then watched the extra innings All-Star Game to the end. I woke up at my regular time, too early. I felt as if I had been in a train wreck. I hate it that I felt a twisted gratification at knowing that thousands of you did the same thing I did last night, like it or not.