Pharmacy is about more than just dollars and cents… it can also involve supporting people during their toughest times

By Curtis Ruhnau

It was on a Thursday in our pharmacy a couple of months ago. I wasn’t rostered as a pharmacist, but was at work doing all the other things that need to be done, white coat or not.

At about 5pm I noticed our intern pharmacist sitting in our private counselling area with a distressed patient. Leanne* is a lady I’ve known for some time, although I know other members of her family better, especially her sister Rebecca* and her mother. Leanne was crying and although Jenny our intern was doing a great job, she wasn’t getting any better.

It was about this time that Leanne motioned to me. I went over and asked how I could help.

“I got bashed last night, by a man that boards with me. I don’t know where to go,” she choked through tears.

I sat down, thanked Jenny for her time and started talking to Leanne. She explained that the boarder was someone distantly related to her and she had taken him in because she couldn’t afford her rent on her own. Now it was going to be dark soon and she didn’t feel safe to go back to her own home.

She said that calling the police wasn’t something she wanted to do; she felt it wouldn’t make any difference. She just didn’t know where to go and it was when she was walking past our pharmacy that she thought she’d come in. She knew us, we treated her with respect and she just didn’t know what else to do.

We had a chat.

During the next 25 minutes she told me about herself and her life; how she had lived and worked on the North Coast, both in a nursing home and with Meals on Wheels. “I felt like I had a purpose – they were my people,” she said, brightening visibly as she said it. But she had to return to Sydney and has been unable to obtain regular work since coming back. She was living on welfare, struggling to make her money last.

I talked to her about her sister and her nephews and nieces. Again she brightened as she described Rebecca and her kids, but she didn’t feel she could bother Rebecca again today.

Leanne told me that she had lost both of her babies; one was stillborn and the other had died in her arms 10 minutes after being born.

“I just don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t handle it,” she told me.

This worried me. Although I’ve never done any formal mental health training (it’s on my to-do list), I knew she meant that she was thinking of suicide. So I asked her directly if she’d thought about it. Yes. Recently? Yes. Did she have any plans to do anything about it? No.

We talked about the strength she has to keep going on when she feels she has nothing to live for. We talked about the fact that her people (her family, friends and her community) need the strength she has.

And after a quick conversation, my wife Margaret suggested I ask Leanne whether I could put her in touch with one of the two medical/community centres in our area. One she didn’t want to talk to, but the other she was happy for me to ring for her. After a brief phone call with me, one of the chronic care workers said they’d call Leanne on her mobile in a few minutes. I could see the relief start to show on her face.

Then she hesitated. “You know, I drink too much, and I smoke marijuana too” she told me, rather sheepishly.

“But that doesn’t make you a bad person” I said. And with that she dissolved into tears again. I don’t know what she was expecting but obviously, it wasn’t that.

After a few more minutes talking her phone rang – it was the community centre on the line. She missed the call but something in her had changed. She looked calmer. She dried her eyes again and said that she’d better be going; she didn’t want to hold me up any more. I told her that I wasn’t going anywhere until I was sure she was going to be ok.

Leanne assured me she’d be ok, and somehow I knew that this night she would be.

Leanne is dealing with demons I have never had to fathom in my own, comfortable life. I have a wonderful wife, a beautiful supportive family and a place to go to work where the people I deal with remind me why I became a pharmacist. It’s not about boxes and bottles of drugs – it’s about helping people.

Leanne’s been back into the pharmacy since. She has a smile that says ‘hello and thank you’ when she comes in now, and Rebecca has been in too. I check in with each of them when I can, and they seem to know I’m concerned for them and their family.

On the way home in the car that day, I reflected with Margaret on how these are my people. Just as Leanne brightened when she talked about working for her people, my people (call them patients, clients, customers, I don’t care) give me purpose. It’s not all about the dollars, the number of scripts. It’s about people, and it’s why it’ll be a long time before I hang up my white coat. Of course, the business has to run well and smoothly, but that’s a means to an end. And the end is people.

*Names have been changed

Curtis Ruhnau with his wife Margaret is a partner in a community pharmacy in a lower socioeconomic area in Western Sydney. They have been there for over 17 years and have developed close links with much of the local community. In 2014 Curtis was nominated for the Pride of Australia medal by one of the pharmacy’s patients, with the endorsement “He’s always there for us”.