Half minimum chips


Image by LUEK.

Angelo Pricolo muses on odd requests, from the patient who offered to supply his own cocaine for nose drops, to the man who wanted staff to apply his suppository

As I stood patiently in the fish and chip shop waiting to place my order, the request from a straight-faced teen for “half minimum chips” resonated with me. It ended up forcing an audible laugh, as I struggled to contain my burgeoning smile.

It has been an expression that has stayed with me since. It reminds me of many peculiar requests that have confronted me over more than three decades of working in community pharmacy. Like… do you offer dry cleaning services or hire DVDs? Unconventional to me, but an expectation for some.

But being asked for fruit and veg in a pharmacy would be a stretch for most. How about super glue, engine oil, fishing tackle or table tennis balls?

Reminds me of the pharmacist who got asked if he had cotton balls. With the prompt reply “Do you think I’m a teddy bear?”

I’ve had numerous requests to hold people’s shopping while they finish their errands, even expecting me to put their milk in the fridge. Sometimes you say yes.

Late one night I received a phone call from a confused patient trying to locate some nose drops. The man was somewhat distressed and frustrated after having undergone surgery, and now experiencing some pain, he was prescribed cocaine nose drops. His voice seemed vaguely familiar albeit a bit Jerry Lewis after the surgery.

Interestingly I had had a request recently for the same product and encountered similar frustration. There is no proprietary formulation in Australia so the drops needed to be made up from the white powder. The problem was cocaine was out of stock at the wholesalers (my usual place of purchase…) and I knew I had none in the safe.

Cocaine nose drops are not a common extemporaneous request and most people think it’s a bit of a joke when they first hear about them. But they are used pre and sometimes post surgery.

In early 2020 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a cocaine nasal spray called Numbrino®. They were quick to clarify that this local anaesthetic drug will not be available OTC.

My initial doubts turned to genuine sympathy as I explained the stock situation to my phone patient. Maybe I gave him too much information but his tone immediately changed as he offered his solution.

“Why didn’t you say that was the issue? I can get the coke!”

I had to foil his enthusiasm as I quickly assessed just how many regulations I would contravene if I actually entertained his offer. Imagine trying to explain this one! What would I write in the DD register? No invoice number as cocaine supplied by patient.

But he was persistent and played the “Do you know who I am?” card. I was not shocked when he identified himself and I instantly matched the voice, even with the nose job, to the TV celebrity. At that point I also suspected he was serious about supplying cocaine.

Another call that I remember vividly was the start of an episode I’d rather forget. I had sold a urinal to a customer who was caring for his terminally ill father. It was a sad story and an awkward sale but at least I felt the item might make his last days more comfortable.  I’ve never enjoyed selling urinals.

That week, a couple of days later, the same man called to inform me of the death of his father. I was saddened but thought the call was a bit odd as neither had been regular customers and it took some time just to remember the sale.

But then the penny dropped as he asked if he could return the urinal as his father only used it for one night. Now although I felt for his loss and had hoped he was going to get more use from it, I had to explain that this type of item could not be returned or re-sold. After some convincing he seemed disappointed but resigned.

That’s what I thought. But within an hour, while most would still be mourning the loss of their father, I had a disgruntled customer at the counter. It was only when he dropped the used urinal on the front counter (it was not in a bag or any other container) that I really had to be a bit more direct.

All activity froze. How anyone could think it was ok to return a used personal item in this manner is beyond me. I explained this calmly but firmly but all my staff was pretty upset by his behaviour. We spent a fair bit of time thoroughly cleaning the counter and having a debrief after he left.

Then there were the ubiquitous requests for credit that encouraged me to create an analogy to take some of the pressure off, but still relay the core message. “Would you fill up at the petrol station and expect not to pay?” Sometimes this encouraged reflection, other times it just put fuel on the fire.

But one of my favourites was a regular, an elderly man we unfortunately watched deteriorate over the years. Physically and mentally he was becoming a shadow of his former self, and it was disheartening to watch the degenerative process. His good humour and insistence on wearing his tailored suit remained.

I say attempt as he became slowly more dishevelled and sometimes wore his Fitzroy football jumper under the now snug-fitting jacket. We all liked him but eventually lost touch after his inevitable move to a high care facility close to family.

Nevertheless the day he came in shopping for some tablets to relieve his obviously distressful constipation remains etched into my awkward episode file. He kept pointing to the offending anatomy as he said tablet so we concluded it was a suppository he was looking for.

After the sale was complete he stayed seated for some time. No one wanted to rush him but eventually he drew our attention as he started to expose that offending orifice and holding the open pack just purchased he demanded, “Now stick one in!”

No amount of diplomacy or good will could easily diffuse the situation; it just had to pass, like the condition. We did our best for his sake, our customers and the staff’s wellbeing.

Afternoon tea was Pasticceria Brunetti and the luscious smell and texture of the homemade cakes almost washed away the morning drama.

It occurred to me that the request for half minimum chips was really not so crazy.

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

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1 Comment

  1. Russell Smith
    17/03/2021

    We should start a pharmacist’s “war stories” thread
    Some of us may have similarly entertaining memories
    Mine will keep for the time being

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