The Pharmacies Aren’t All Right

Reader, this is a different post. If you’re looking for pop culture, this isn’t for you. Instead, I am going to talk a little about a big problem. There will be discussion of suicide*.

I don’t talk about my day job much. I suppose at this point I should say my former day job. I side-stepped from retail pharmacy into a different sector in late September. For sixteen years, however, I was a retail pharmacy technician with one of the big chains. I was one of the lucky ones. I got out.

A pharmacist who had no business managing one of the busiest pharmacies in my town killed himself the other day. His name was Josh. He was young. The pharmacist in charge at my current job used to have Josh’s old job. He was livid when he learned this information, despite never meeting the man. The other two pharmacists that I now work for knew Josh. One of them had worked with him for a short period of time. The other knew him from school. We don’t know why this young man made the decision to end his life, but one thing is for certain: his work life definitely wasn’t making things any better for him. How do I know this? Reader, I lived it. I’ve been there.

For the last four years, prior to my new employment, I was miserable every single day. My home life deteriorated. My hobbies crumbled, taking away my dreams of ever having a career that let me write words for money. I almost stopped reading entirely. My days consisted of getting up, drifting through the bare minimum of housework that was required to keep my household from descending into utter chaos, going to work, making it through a shift, and then coming home. I was bitter and depressed. Relationships suffered. I frequently thought about just going to sleep and not waking up. I began to experience suicidal ideation. It became commonplace for me; there were fewer days when I didn’t experience those thoughts than when I did.

The company that I worked for has no empathy for its employees. Tasks were increased even as labor hours were cut. It happens in every single field, but in healthcare, this is a harmful, dangerous trend. I was a pharmacy technician. If I made a mistake and the pharmacist didn’t catch it, someone could get hurt, sick, or worse. It’s happened before. Feel free to search for “pharmacy errors” on Google and you’ll find more results than I can discuss here. These things happen because corporations like CVS and Walgreens have decided that it’s more important to make money than to work safely. It’s been deteriorating for years.

In 2020 everything became exponentially worse.

You don’t need me to tell you what happened in 2020 that might have made anyone in healthcare a great deal more stressed. No, a retail pharmacy isn’t on the same level as a hospital or even a clinic. Nevertheless, we were still out there on the front lines, dealing with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t stay home. We were wearing masks, but we weren’t permitted to enforce the mask rule. And as far as protecting the employees? My company’s answer was a goddamned joke. Acrylic barriers were shipped to the store months after the pandemic started. They were approximately 24 inches wide and comically flimsy. People poked their heads around them constantly because the spaces between the barriers and the walls were larger than the barriers themselves. Posters proclaiming that we were heroes appeared on doors. We got a small bonus, once.

It was decided that technicians could be trained to give COVID-19 immunizations. I agreed to do the training and began giving shots the same week that the CDC lowered the age limit to include 12-year-olds. I didn’t get a raise for taking on this new responsibility. To be clear, intellectually, I was happy to contribute to the effort to help people become immunized. In reality, it caused incredible amounts of anxiety that broke my brain. I’m still trying to recover from the experience of regularly shutting myself up in a small cubicle with a non-immunized person several times per day, wondering if I was going to get sick from this and potentially carry it home to my spouse (who works from home anyway, even prior to the pandemic).

I might have made it if corporate hadn’t decided to start offering same-day COVID tests through our drive through. To be clear, the pharmacy staff was responsible for taking samples of potentially infected mucus and testing it for a harmful virus. We didn’t get a raise when this new, potentially dangerous responsibility was thrust upon us. We were responsible for dozens of tests every single day on top of our regular pharmacy workload. This workload included making phone calls to patients to urge them to enroll in various services that we offered at the pharmacy, inquire as to why they were late refilling their prescriptions, and to offer to convert all of their future maintenance prescriptions to a ninety day supply. We had the least amount of employees in the pharmacy that I had ever seen in my entire career.

It was killing me. And I was, again, a technician. I couldn’t imagine doing that job and being the person responsible for all of that. I was crying every single day, even the ones that didn’t require me to go to work. I thought about taking my life. I thought about it every single day. I couldn’t see a way out of the situation that I was in. I had tried, fruitlessly, to find work at a hospital pharmacy (because I wasn’t going to move to a new retail chain — that way held only more pain and suffering on top of having to learn a new system).

I got out in time. Josh didn’t. Who knows how many in the profession aren’t? If you search for statistics you’ll find disappointing information. Corporate lack of empathy for employees in this field is staggering. You cannot and should not treat the pharmacy the same as the dairy or canned goods section of a store. The metrics that have been designed to increase profit are ruining lives on both sides of the pharmacy counter. Nothing’s being done and I’m so angry that I can’t see straight.

The entire American workforce is experiencing problems unlike anything that I can remember. I’m not implying that pharmacy employees are somehow worthier of respect or consideration, but we walk the line between healthcare and retail, and it’s a hard place to be. The individuals in the stores are breaking and none of the top individuals at these companies care.

So if you’re in line at the pharmacy, and the line isn’t going as fast as you want? Or if the person at the register doesn’t seem as personable or friendly as you would like? Try to be patient.

*If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, please know that you are not alone. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.