“Hold-up:” two words you don’t want to hear in a pharmacy


Cartoon burglar and immovable pharmacist
Image by Luke Mitchell.

Angelo Pricolo recounts how his former boss handled a difficult situation… by doing everything pharmacists are taught not to do

You never say “hold-up” in a pharmacy. Even if the tram was held up and you were late for work, it is important to make a conscious effort to always separate the words “hold” and “up”. Just like you don’t say “bomb” on a plane, even if you are asking for the Bombe Alaska on the first class desert menu.

I suppose it’s also a bit like the words “mistake” or “error”. The first thing that springs to mind for the pharmacist is “I gave out the wrong drug”.

We should have more confidence in our ability and accuracy of dispensing, but an alarm bell rings at the mere thought that you inadvertently selected the wrong strength or family of drug.

But “hold-up” rates up there in the same scary league, and as testament I distinctly remember arriving at my 6 to 9 retail job after my 9 to 5 hospital job many years ago. The faces I was met with married perfectly with the words “hold-up” and so did the horror story that followed.

But there was one thing amiss at the crime scene, as I started to learn of the ordeal from the pharmacy assistants. The owner, the pharmacist I was relieving, was either oblivious to the whole event or was putting on a gigantic front. Strangely, he was his jovial self; in fact, he was even more jovial.

I decided to get his version of the incident first, as I knew the shop assistant would be with me until closing so we had time to discuss the event at length. But he needed prodding, he didn’t just lunge into the story, and in fact it wasn’t even front of mind for him.

“What happened?”

“What?”

“Was there a hold-up?”

“Here? Yeah.”

Again I had to re-focus his thoughts, or accept the topic had been terminated.

“Yeah here, the girls said there was a hold-up and he had a gun?”

“Yeah.”

Was the owner heroic or in shock? Was I a wimp or was he a superhero? I needed some answers so pressed for the full story. What follows is his account.

“Guy walks into the pharmacy and pulls out a pistol and says ‘Write me a cheque for $50,000…now’.” (Immediately I have dated the story… cheque!).

“‘#uck off,’ I told him.

Am I hearing this correctly? I said to myself. Is that what he really said? Yeah, that’s what the owner, James, would say.

“‘I’m not joking, write the cheque’.”

“‘No chance’, I said again.

“‘Okay, $25,000, but hurry’.

“I gave him the same reply.  

“‘Cash, give me all the cash!’” That was his next demand. Same reply.”

Again, I have no doubt how concise his reply would have been.

“Eventually he left with no cheque and no cash. Idiot, they’ll catch him, I know the guy.”

The first thing that came to my mind was why not write the cheque, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. But not James, a man of principle, there was no way.

James left for the night and I needed a de-brief with the shop assistant and to verify the story. I asked if she was okay, but I could tell she was struggling a little. She started to tell me the story as she saw it, her voice quivering as she spoke.

“Guy walks into the pharmacy wearing a balaclava and pulls out a pistol and says ‘Write me a cheque for $50,000… now’.” James said ‘#uck off’.”

So far the story lines up.

“‘I’m not joking, write the cheque’.”

“‘No chance,’ James said again.

“‘Ok, $25,000, but hurry’”.

“Again he gave him the same reply.

“‘Cash, give me all the cash!’” That was his next demand.

“Same reply from James.

“James continued to serve a patient while this was going on. He pushed past the guy with the gun and told him to shut up. He pushed him.

“Eventually the guy leaves with no cheque and no cash. James said ‘Idiot, they’ll catch him, I know the guy’.”

So although I struggled to believe the event actually had transpired as described by James, it seems his account was accurate. He did everything we are taught not to do and he did it with an air of confidence befitting an SAS trained soldier.

I don’t think I could ever react the same way nor would I recommend it, but something in me admires his courage and toughness. It taught me just how different individuals are and how hard it is to really know someone and how they will react in a crisis. Is he the pharmacist you would want to be working with in the event of a hold-up? Not sure.                

That night was a quiet night in the pharmacy. Not much else was spoken about and every time the front door opened, an unsteady mood washed over me as I struggled to understand a few things.

  1. What brings someone to the point of holding up a pharmacy at gunpoint?
  2. Why did I choose such a dangerous job?
  3. Why didn’t James write the cheque?

Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

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