2020 – Another year pharmacists went above and beyond for patients

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“It was a strange day near the start of the pandemic, I still remember it so well,” says Dipak Yogeshsinh Chauhan, a young pharmacist from Southall in west London. “I work two jobs, one every weekday from nine to five, and one in the evenings in a pharmacy from six-thirty to half-eleven, Monday to Thursday. I love it; I love being busy and feeling fully used up by the end of the day.

“At the time, guidance was that people shouldn’t leave their house if they were caring for someone vulnerable. Obviously, we received a call at 11.28 p.m. The lady just started crying down the phone. She had been going back and forth with NHS 111 to get a prescription for an antibiotic and pain relief for her mother who was poorly.”

Unable to come in to get her medication, Dipak’s customer’s desperation was completely understandable. This year has been a test for us all – it has been scientifically proven to be the saddest on record. With Covid-19 and all its fallout, we have, to differing extents, all felt like that woman on the other end of the telephone at one point or another this year.

Yet in some way, we should be grateful for the little things that this most stressful of years has revealed about our resilience and the strength of spirit of our friends and healthcare colleagues.

Pharmacists, doctors, nurses, care home staff, essential workers; everyone has come together, united in our mission to do everything possible for our communities and minimise the impact of the ongoing pandemic. Through it all, our actions have helped people to keep their chins up and keep looking forward.

That spirit of selflessness possessed Dipak on that spring night. The customer on the telephone, he continues, “begged for me to do something.

“I said we could stay open for a further 5 minutes, but anything more would mean we are going against our contractual hours. She continued crying for her mother and I caved in, as I always do.

“She lived in a different town and NHS 111 had sent over the prescription at 11:20 p.m. I thought, ‘I’ll take one for humanity and deliver this.’ She was so thankful, so appreciative, and so humbled by our actions. She offered me some money, but I refused. I couldn’t take it, I was just doing my job.

“I began to walk away and tried to reassure her that it would all be OK as she continued to cry. She then politely bowed down and clapped as I was leaving. Sometimes, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do. Do what’s right, forget what the norm was because we aren’t living in the norm.”

Dipak’s story is in many ways 2020 in microcosm. We have all struggled in different ways and at different times, but with the kind acts of acquaintances and strangers alike, we will make it through. Inspired by people like Dipak and the recent campaign video released by Numark showing the incredible work pharmacists across the country have done over the last nine months, I wanted to write an article sharing some of the heart-warming tales I have heard.

There have been accounts of pharmacists who live with vulnerable relatives moving out of their own homes so they could continue working on the frontline, bringing medication and more importantly their invaluable expertise to the people who needed it most. There have been stories of pharmacists working double time to make sure their customers are coming into a safe environment when they visit stores, or using their evenings and weekends to deliver medicines to those most vulnerable people who would otherwise have gone without.

Student pharmacists have had to deal with the stresses of not knowing what might come next, care home pharmacists have looked after our parents and grandparents, intensive care pharmacists have dealt bravely with the most devastating effects of this awful disease. When you stop to think about how much has been sacrificed for the greater good, it is truly humbling.

Another of my favourite anecdotes came from Rishi Bathia, a Numark member, pharmacist and owner of RB Healthcare. RB Healthcare is comprised of two stores in Stockport and another in York, which as well as being thriving community pharmacies, work closely with local care homes to manage the provision of medication for their residents.

It was through that connection that Rishi was motivated to perform his own laudable act. In May, he set out to answer the call for more PPE for care home staff, by running a distance equivalent to four marathons across the month. His original target was to raise £1,000 to help pay for the masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser. But on both distance and fundraising, Rishi exceeded expectations.

By the end of the first weekend, he had hit his initial monetary target and by the end of the month, he had run 210 miles – the equivalent of eight marathons – and raised £3,215. With that, he has been able to purchase a total of 4,500 masks, 13,550 gloves, 81 litres of hand sanitiser and 36 litres of hand lotion for key workers in 18 care homes around the Stockport, Liverpool and York areas.

In addition to this, Nebular cloud generously donated 250 face visors Tetley Tea and Yorkshire Tea did what they could, giving 9,000 tea bags. To go with the tea, Rishi purchased 9,000 biscuits so that staff were able to have a little treat as a reward for their own selflessness. And of course, Rishi’s pharmacy businesses were all the while providing the care homes with the same service they always had, despite all the logistical challenges.

Our communities have leant on us for the support over the last few months and pharmacists have answered. Likewise, we have leant on our communities for their support and felt the warm embrace of their gratitude, even if we have had to maintain our physical distance.

Dimple Bhatia, another Numark member who runs his own pharmacy in Tollesbury on the Essex coast, says, “Despite being faced with immense challenges, the great Tollesbury community spirit has shone bright and strong over the last few months with cards, letters, handwritten notes from children, cakes, biscuits and messages of support, helping us all walk just that little bit taller – especially after some very long 16-hour days.

“I certainly found that my 90-mile a day commute from London took its toll at the height of the pandemic, but the commitment and determination from my entire team has been stoic and resilient throughout. Teamwork has certainly been the secret to riding this pandemic wave.”

Demand for deliveries of medication shot up during lockdown and, Dimple says, “At one stage we were doing 120 deliveries a day.” But again, the community pulled together. “We quickly enlisted the support of a group of local volunteers – The Tolls Vols – who picked up patient prescriptions and essential shopping, helping reduce the pressure on our pharmacy.

“Our patient community stretches some 12-15 miles beyond the village of Tollesbury and our customers span from young parents with new-borns to elderly yet active 90-year olds, who love the social hub and interaction of their local pharmacy team. What Covid-19 has reinforced, is that no matter what age the patient or customer, they don’t see pharmacies as suppliers of a product but a valuable healthcare resource, providing an informed opinion that is trusted. We are available without an appointment to give the right advice, reassure and treat.”

“There is no denying, community pharmacy needs to change in the wake of Covid-19 – we cannot continue to rely on prescriptions. We need customers to think pharmacy first for all minor ailments, chronic condition management and wellbeing advice. Pharmacists and their teams really are health superheroes, unfortunately, we don’t shout about it enough. It’s time to shout and let the world know how truly great we all are.”

There are still challenges ahead, but as Christmas comes around and this most difficult of years draws to a close, I think we can all say amen to that.