The pharmacist's power animal

April 10, 2015

This blackbird is a good omen.

David StanleyThis is a story about a clock and a raven. One illustrates how low our profession has fallen, while the other shows our potential. During my workdays at one of the big chains, I was always aware of a clock that stared down at me; for me, it became a symbol of the petty workplace tyranny so many people now contend with in the modern business world. It wasn’t a symbol in the way you might expect, though, because I loved that clock.

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It was a gift from one of our regular patients, and far from being a constant reminder of the time I thought I had to sell to giant corporations in order to eat, this particular clock was a fun reminder of the history of pharmacy. In place of numbers, it displayed symbols of medieval medicine, such as the traditional “Rx,” the image of the snake wrapped around a medicinal goblet, etc., making it a unique addition to our pharmacy's decor. And it never failed to remind me of when my shift was over and my time my own again.

End of an era

Some readers working for the chains can probably guess what happened to the clock. During one of his periodic visits, our district manager's only comment was that the clock had to go. There was not a word about patient care, store operations, profitability, or metrics; apparently that clock was the only thing worth talking about.

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I never quite understood why the clock was so important, but I lobbied the pharmacy manager and was allowed to take it home at the end of the day. A few weeks later I gave it to a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend and never saw it again.

I think of that clock these days far more than I do of her, asking myself, “How can someone call himself a professional when he doesn’t even have the power to hang up a wall clock?” Isn't the very definition of professional someone who is autonomous, free to make his or her own decisions? 

A few months after the order came to take down the Rx clock, a different type of clock showed up on our computer screens. It turned from green to yellow to red, depending on how quickly prescriptions were being filled. At that point, pretending you had any control over how you practiced your profession became almost impossible. An order came down from a new district manager that in order to keep those computer clocks as green as possible, we were never, ever to have more than five labels printed out at a time.

That wall clock became, in my mind, the symbol for the end of an era, and the story of its demise really bothered me. Few people understood why. I bet you do, though.

 

Quoth the raven...

I found the raven when I was unpacking boxes while settling into the town where I had just bought a pharmacy. I bought it at a craft store as part of a present for my soon-to-be wife. It's made from real feathers, which makes it look disturbingly lifelike. I stuck it on the counter next to the computer where I fill prescriptions and was soon amused by the number of customers who asked me if it was real.

There was no real reason to have a raven watching over me during the workday. I had just stuck it up there and never got around to moving it. Soon a consensus developed that his name was Ronald. I'm not sure who actually came up with the name or when, but my customers get a kick out of “Ronald Raven,” and more than once I've heard children shout out “There's Ronald!” when Mom comes in to pick up a prescription. That stuffed raven is well on its way to becoming part of the community.

It would never, ever be allowed on the counter of a chain drug store. When I see Ronald, I'm reminded that I really didn't have to sell my time in order to make a living. Sometimes I'll look at him and print out six labels, just because I can. That bird has become a symbol of my freedom, of how its my mission to keep autonomy as part of the definition of professional, at least in one little corner of the pharmacy world.

These days, I look at that mound of feathers and almost never fail to smile. The story of Ronald makes me happy, and while few people fully understand just why, I’ll bet most of you do.

Which leads me to ask, which symbol would be more closely associated with your workday? The clock, or the raven? And more important, if you're haunted by something the way I was haunted by that clock, what are you going to do about it?