Pharmacist Veronica Nou has faced significant challenges both inside and outside pharmacy, but keeps her eyes fixed on those in need
A recognisable face in both community pharmacy and refugee advocacy circles, Veronica Nou has seemingly endless energy and a larger-than-life presence—despite her self-described “diminutive” figure, standing at just five feet tall.
The proprietor of two pharmacies in the western suburbs of Sydney—having bought her first one at just 26 years of age—Nou is clearly driven, having overcome what was a difficult start in life.
A former child refugee, the now 39-year-old was born while her parents were en route between Cambodia and Thailand, escaping from the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian war.
“I was born somewhere along there… but I’m not really sure where or when exactly. It was wartime and my parents were running around trying to avoid dying.”
She has just one photo of herself as an infant, which was taken when the family was being documented at a refugee camp. They finally reached Australian shores in 1991.
After completing schooling in Australia, Nou decided to pursue pharmacy after her dad, a doctor, suggested it to her.
“My father always wanted to be a pharmacist. In Cambodia, to be a pharmacist is a really well-respected profession,” she said.
“So I entered pharmacy at the University of Sydney. Eventually I found work in pharmacy [in about 1999] and I discovered that I really, really liked it.
“I really fell into it because of my father wanting to live his dreams vicariously through me.”
After she graduated from her pharmacy degree in 2004, she spent a long time locuming.
“I was working in northern Sydney, western Sydney, in regional areas. I went out to Wagga Wagga, to Wollongong… I tried large pharmacies and small pharmacies. It gave me a very clear idea of my own strengths,” said Nou.
“I’m someone who’s always had very clear ideas about what I wanted to do and the outcome that I expected,” she told the AJP.
“It frustrated me in the past to be working in other pharmacies that had different priorities… [and] approaches to people that I felt were not always in their best interest.”
She decided that owning her own pharmacy could be a way to pursue her vision.
“I felt like I could really make the most difference working in a smaller pharmacy in a space where I could talk to people and connect with them, and that my role was more holistic. I wasn’t just going to be giving them their medication and saying goodbye,” said Nou.
“Even though I was still relatively young, I had learnt so much, especially from my time working in rural and regional areas.
“I wanted to take that chance and challenge myself. I’m really glad I took that leap because it has been so fulfilling, as a pharmacy owner and as a pharmacist, where I can take care of people and I don’t have this stress of having someone else breathing down my neck because maybe I haven’t always put profit before clinical outcomes.”
Breaking into ownership
Veronica bought her first pharmacy in Colyton in 2008 for just under a million dollars.
“It was expensive even then, but I had faith in myself in being able to turn it around. I also had nightmares every night for the next six months about the bank repossessing everything because I was wrong.”
Her worst fears were not realised as the pharmacy took off. In fact, it went so well that she was eventually able to step back from running the business on a day-to-day basis.
With a desire to “try something new”, Nou went on to buy a second pharmacy, Morris Care & Advice Pharmacy in Oxley Park.
“About three years ago I came here and it’s been a very enjoyable ride ever since,” she said.
Nou has had her fair share of wacky experiences during her career and enjoys sharing the quirky side of community pharmacy life.
One of these funny stories is the case of the mango bandit—when a lovely couple, regulars of the pharmacy, kindly brought her a mango as a gift when a passing customer grabbed the mango right off the dispensary counter and took off.
She chased after the man and reclaimed her mango. “The important thing is, I was victorious!” she said, laughing. “People don’t believe that it happened, but it’s true.”
There’s the condom thieves that swiped products from her pharmacy. Nou decided not to chase them down and instead wrote a public message on a board in the store: “Dear condom thieves. Please keep them—you shouldn’t reproduce.”
Then there’s story of the son of a regular elderly patient who turned out to be an “anti-vaxxer”.
“I don’t want those poisons in my body. Can’t you just fake it for me?” the man said.
Nou questioned him on what it was about vaccines that bothered him and responded to his worries about allergies and if they really worked. She reassured him about their safety.
In a major victory, the man acquiesced and agreed to get the flu shot.
Highs and lows
While Veronica Nou deftly uses humour to share her experiences, it’s plain to see that her light-hearted disposition offsets the very real difficulties she has encountered not only early in life, but also both within and beyond the four walls of her community pharmacy.
There’s the instances of domestic violence she has witnessed in her area.
She has security footage from the first time her female delivery driver went running in a panic to hide out the back of the pharmacy. A violent ex had figured out her regular route and was waiting to ambush her out front.
Or the time a man nearby had assaulted his girlfriend while she was holding their baby—also caught on Nou’s CCTV footage.
“I wanted to make a genuine difference in the community that I was serving, so I didn’t pick somewhere that I knew was going to be easy. The areas in which both pharmacies are located have very difficult demographics” she told the AJP.
“People in the area are lacking in health literacy, they are quite often struggling financially, and they often put themselves last in terms of their self care.
“Our area was never an affluent one, but the pandemic has really put far more of our locals into serious financial distress, on top of the social isolation and general COVID-related anxiety.”
While passionate about the health of her patients and community, Nou has also had to regularly battle casual sexism and racism.
“It is challenging, and even though pharmacy has become a very feminised industry, ironically we still have to deal with misogynist behaviour on a daily basis,” she says.
“When you work in a difficult area, these issues are more prevalent.”
Nou has had patients, drug reps and even delivery drivers assume she is not the owner of the pharmacy without even asking.
“I’ve been working in pharmacy for 22 years and that still happens to this day,” she said. “It’s more important when you’re trying to get other healthcare professionals and the people that you’re looking after to take you seriously.”
She has also had regular patients make sexually suggestive comments to her, and even assault her.
“I’ve had my ass grabbed [by patients]. Once I was serving at the counter, this man reached over the counter and grabbed my chest while I was talking to him,” Nou shared.
“There was the delivery driver who grabbed my ass, so I changed wholesaler.”
One patient was so irate at having to wait that he forcefully grabbed her by the arm and demanded service.
Another commented to one of Nou’s male staff members that if she gave him any trouble to “just give her a good backhand”.
“It is so wildly inappropriate. As soon as it’s offensive, ‘oh I was just joking’,” said Nou.
“People come in and say things like, ‘oh Veronica, isn’t it terrible about all the boat people in this country?’
“You have a couple of choices. Do you immediately say, ‘no that is unacceptable’, do you refuse to serve people anymore? Or do you try to educate them and talk to them gently to try to bring people across the divide?
“Wherever we can, we try to be calm but firm. But people tend to keep on pushing with you, which I don’t believe would be an issue if I weren’t five foot tall. It becomes tiring, it becomes exhausting, to deal with that day in and day out.
“I came here because I wanted a challenge, I wanted to make a difference. It has been a challenge. But as difficult as it is, with all of its issues, it is a place where we’ve been able to make some really wonderful differences in the lives of the people that we serve, so I don’t regret that—even when I’m tired and run down.
“Being a pharmacist and being able to connect with people, help them and see the smile on their face brings me joy. That’s what makes me happy, that’s what gives me my professional fulfilment every day.
“There’s always someone who will come in and go, ‘hey Veronica, thank you so much. What you did made such a difference for me’.”
Making a difference
One such patient credits Nou with saving his life.
An older gentleman came into her pharmacy asking for eye drops, which his GP had suggested.
“He walked in one day, I had never seen him before in my life. He had one red eye,” explained Nou.
“I was looking at the eye, it was very red and I was a bit concerned. He was older, probably in his late 60s, he was quite overweight. There was just something slightly off kilter, maybe the way he was standing was not quite balanced.
“I said to him, ‘look I’m really concerned. I don’t think this is right. I don’t just want to sell you eye drops and tell you to go away and everything will be fine. I personally would feel much more comfortable if you went and saw another doctor. I can get you straight in.”
To Nou’s surprise, the man went to see the doctor as she suggested.
“While he was in the waiting room at the GPs, he had a stroke, right then and there. He was admitted into hospital, they ran a whole series of tests and unfortunately found a whole lot of things wrong with him that had been missed by the doctor.
“It’s been 10 years now since that day, and he came back again after 10 years with a little card that read: ‘Veronica, thank you so much, you being so bossy saved my life’.
“That’s what happens in this area. There’s not enough GPs, the doctor is tired, he wants to go home.
“There’s very few other places that you can go to. The health services here are stretched,” she said.
“To make a difference, especially in an area like this, you have to go that extra mile—and be willing to be shouted at later if you’re wrong, which also happens.”
A community focus
And going the extra mile is what she does. Nou invests significant energy into community work through her pharmacy as well as through the advocacy and charitable organisation Mums 4 Refugees, of which she is an active member.
“We provide MedsChecks and DiabetesChecks and pretty much all the amazingly valuable services a pharmacy can provide free of charge for refugees, via video call or phone if necessary, and prearrange interpreting services through the National Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) as needed.”
Nou has also organised several workshops to combat misinformation on health and asylum seeker issues within her community.
“We bring people together in a COVID-safe way so they can make connections in the community for social support, we can make service referrals as necessary, for counselling for example, give people a really fantastic healthy meal and supply them with essential groceries and toiletries, and sneak in some education for them as well.”
Ultimately, she is driven by her own harrowing experience to support asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia.
“With my own background, having been through the system, it gave me a really good inside perspective on what they were facing,” she said.
“I know what it’s like to be a kid who hasn’t eaten anything but peas for a whole week. I know what it’s like to be so tired that when you sit down on the toilet, you fall asleep because you haven’t been able to sleep because there is nowhere safe for you. I know what it’s like to come home from school and the place that you’re staying might not be a safe place for you to stay.
“It really feels so ungrateful if I’m going to turn my back on that and go, ‘that’s no longer my problem. I’ve made it, I’m fine, I’m happy, now I don’t have to think about it anymore’. I could do that, or I could say, ‘hey you guys, I made it and I’m going to do whatever I can to help you guys make it too’.”
Veronica’s tips for community pharmacists who want to help
- Keep a listing of local area services you can easily refer people to as needed.
- Making these services aware of what you are doing can help kick off collaboration.
- Local councils can provide contact details for services such as emergency housing, domestic violence support, legal aid, elder abuse referrals, foodbanks and charitable organisations.
- Hook in with local schools as their existing infrastructure makes them a community hub.
- Run free health workshop days and invite people you know would benefit.
- Book a properly interpreted TIS MedsCheck consultation for someone who doesn’t speak your language, offer to run a men’s health workshop at your local Vietnam Veterans centre or call the local women’s shelter and run a drive for pads and tampons for them. “These are all ways you can make a real, tangible difference in another person’s life,” she said.