Asthma thunderstorm: ‘I have never seen anything remotely like it.’


Carnovale pharmacy

Yarraville’s Carnovale Pharmacy was inundated with people seeking relief from asthma last night after a severe thunderstorm hit Melbourne – to the point where the pharmacy ran out of Ventolin.

Two Victorians died after they suffered respiratory problems in the “thunderstorm asthma” emergency, and more than 2,000 triple 0 calls were made for ambulances between 6pm and 11pm, the ABC reports, nearly seven times more than normal.

In Fitzroy, the St Vincent’s Hospital ran out of Ventolin.

And in nearby Yarraville, Peter O’Connor, owner of the Carnovale Pharmacy (one of several 24-hour Supercare pharmacies in Victoria) and Yarraville Square Pharmacy, soon faced a flood of people seeking help.

“I was working last night, and I can verify that we ran out – it was incredible,” O’Connor told the AJP today.

“It was frantic. The thunderstorm happened at about a quarter to seven, and at about 10 past seven, the first person came in presenting with asthma.

“It snowballed from there. Within about 40 minutes it was apparent that we were in all sorts of trouble when it came to Ventolin. I ordered 200 for the next day, but that wasn’t going to help us last night.”

Luckily, O’Connor had been about to interview a pharmacist about a position at the Carnovale pharmacy, who had arrived on time for the interview at 7pm.

“He said, ‘Can I help you out with the scripts?’ At 10 o’clock he was still there. At nine, I said, ‘Do you mind if I go to the Yarraville Square pharmacy [which closes at 7] and clean them out of asthma inhalers?’

“So I went and got a lot of them from there, and we sold everything in every type of inhaler from Carnovale and Yarraville Square by 10.30 or 11.

“By then we were handing out tickets, as I knew there were a few more inhalers at Yarraville Square.”

The pharmacy restricted inhalers to one per patient; meanwhile, hospital emergency departments were phoning to see if they could get inhalers from the store.

By now O’Connor was the only pharmacist on duty and needed to wait until he was relieved by an employee at 1am, before he could go to the other pharmacy to get the rest of the Ventolin.

“They just formed an orderly queue and hung around for an hour or two hours,” he says. “When the other pharmacist arrived and I came back with the medicine, I got applause from the people there. They were incredibly thankful.

“I have never seen anything remotely like it, in 25 years of working in pharmacy.

“I’m still traumatised! It was the busiest I’ve ever seen a pharmacy.”

Meanwhile, at the Tambassis Pharmacy in Brunswick, patients who had not been able to access Ventolin in the hospital emergency department were also seeking relief.

“Last night was the most challenging, confronting and scariest shift I have ever worked!” an experienced pharmacy assistant, Tania Doric, texted the pharmacy’s co-owner, Angelo Pricolo.

“People were being turned away from hospital and being sent to us. We sold easily 200 Ventolins. Customers were dropping in the shop… it was absolute mayhem.”

Again, thanks to the team at the Tambassis pharmacy, including security guard Irbaz and pharmacist Tracy Shields, the pharmacy and its customers were able to cope with the emergency.

Pricolo told the AJP that, overseen by Shields, Irbaz distributed inhalers to a queue of customers so that they could get relief while they waited to pay for their Ventolin, or to be shown how to use them if they were unfamiliar with their use (many of the affected had never had an asthma attack before).

“One guy was really bad, he probably would have died if he hadn’t come in,” Pricolo says. “What my team did was wonderful. I was just so proud of what they did.”

Only about half a dozen inhalers remained in the store when the team left, well after the store’s usual closing time of midnight.

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