Pharmacist: ‘I Always Tell My Children That I Took the Practical Route’

Matthew Blake

Though Lisa Vogel admits that pharmacy isn't her passion, she says she doesn't have any regrets about her career path. (Courtesy Lisa Vogel)

For three years in the ear­ly 1970s, jour­nal­ist Studs Terkel gath­ered sto­ries from a vari­ety of Amer­i­can work­ers. He then com­piled them into Work­ing, an oral-his­to­ry col­lec­tion that went on to become a clas­sic. Four decades after its pub­li­ca­tion, Work­ing is more rel­e­vant than ever. Terkel, who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democ­ra­cy, for civ­il rights, for the rights of work­ers has a future, for these val­ues will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In hon­or of that sen­ti­ment and of Work­ings 40th anniver­sary, ITT writ­ers have invit­ed a broad range of Amer­i­can work­ers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Work­ing at 40” sto­ries can be found here.

Nino Guidi­ci, a phar­ma­cist who worked in a rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood, told Terkel in Work­ing that although he could have retired years before his inter­view, he would have missed his reg­u­lar inter­ac­tions with the cus­tomers who depend­ed on him to dis­pense their acne med­ica­tion, mix up an oint­ment or, once, patch up an artery-dam­ag­ing knife wound. I’m not say­ing I love peo­ple, but you miss em,” he said to Terkel — and the com­fort­able salary didn’t hurt, either.

Lisa Vogel of Naperville, Illi­nois has been a phar­ma­cist for more than 30 years; she cur­rent­ly works at Thorek Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal in Chicago’s Lake­view neigh­bor­hood. After going to col­lege in Nebras­ka, Vogel returned to her home state of Illi­nois, where she opened a phar­ma­cy with her father, also a phar­ma­cist, in Peo­ria. After co-run­ning the fam­i­ly busi­ness for six years, Vogel moved with her hus­band to the Chica­go area. Since then, she’s held down sev­er­al phar­ma­cy jobs and raised five chil­dren; like Guidi­ci, she enjoys the rel­a­tive finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty of the profession.

In These Times spoke with Vogel at a cof­fee shop in Chica­go. She’d just fin­ished an eight-hour shift, at which she’d filled almost 100 prescriptions. 

That num­ber is on the low side. Thorek is a small hos­pi­tal. At Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty hos­pi­tal, for exam­ple, you could have hun­dreds to fill in a day.

I work for a staffing agency. So I take assign­ments to fill in staffing gaps at var­i­ous places. Right now, I’m doing that in a hos­pi­tal. And I’m work­ing in oth­er set­tings as well, such as home infu­sion” where peo­ple who get out of the hos­pi­tal still need IVs, but they aren’t sick enough to stay in the hos­pi­tal. There are a lot of dif­fer­ent areas where peo­ple need med­ica­tions oth­er than just going to Walgreens.

Is it typ­i­cal for phar­ma­cists to get work from a staffing agency?

No, I would say it’s atyp­i­cal. But the rea­son it works for me and the rea­son I like doing it is the flex­i­bil­i­ty it gives me with my fam­i­ly. So I can work what­ev­er hours I choose to.

I’ve been work­ing at Thorek since Feb­ru­ary; it’s a month-to-month arrange­ment. Today, I was staffing the in-patient phar­ma­cy at the hos­pi­tal. The tra­di­tion­al role of a hos­pi­tal phar­ma­cist is fill­ing physi­cian orders for the patient in the hos­pi­tal. Essen­tial­ly, it’s get­ting the drug from the phar­ma­cy to the patient on the doctor’s orders.

I also, of course, answer any phone calls from nurs­es with any drug-relat­ed ques­tions. But my ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty is to make sure each patient has the drugs that they are being pre­scribed by their physi­cians while they’re in the hospital.

Why did you become a pharmacist?

My dad was a phar­ma­cist. He had a phar­ma­cy in a doctor’s clin­ic in the small Illi­nois town we grew up in. I had three sis­ters, and we all start­ed work­ing for him when we were 15.

But it was actu­al­ly a woman that my Dad had work­ing for him that inspired me to get into phar­ma­cy. His store hours were like 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in those ear­ly days, in the ear­ly 70s. He had this young, female phar­ma­cist come in and do the 6 to 8 p.m. shift. She had lit­tle kids, and her hus­band was a phar­ma­cist and he worked in the hos­pi­tal across the street.

And I just thought she had a good life. That was the life I want­ed. She was a pro­fes­sion­al. She was mak­ing pret­ty good mon­ey. She was work­ing part-time, and had her kids at home — and I had known for as long as I can remem­ber that I want­ed to have a family.

Peo­ple I knew assumed that I went into it because of my dad. I was exposed to it because of my dad, but see­ing anoth­er women in that role, that real­ly made it hap­pen for me.

Studs Terkel’s inter­view with phar­ma­cist Nino Guidi­ci in Work­ing par­tial­ly focus­es on patient inter­ac­tions. Do you talk with patients much?

When I got out of school I was doing pret­ty much what Studs Terkel describes. They’d bring the pre­scrip­tion to me and I’d fill it up, answer any ques­tions, and actu­al­ly see the patient.

I liked work­ing with peo­ple, I did. So I was going to do retail because I liked deal­ing with peo­ple. When we were still in Peo­ria, I was doing pret­ty much retail. But by that time all the inde­pen­dent phar­ma­cies were start­ing to get bought up by the big chains. It’s just not as easy to con­nect with peo­ple because they’re usu­al­ly angry or they’re sick and angry. It got to be where it just wasn’t fun anymore.

Now, I’m sta­tioned in the in-patient hos­pi­tal so the patients are in their beds on the wing. I don’t see the patients at all now. I can read about them on the com­put­er screen, but I don’t see them.

Is it frus­trat­ing to not have patient interactions?

It’s okay with me. I just remind myself I’m help­ing peo­ple in a dif­fer­ent way. And retail is such a fre­net­ic pace now, with the chain phar­ma­cies. Like, I was the only phar­ma­cist doing a 14-hour shift at CVS about three years ago, and it was just awful. It was a fre­net­ic pace, almost like a fac­to­ry-type men­tal­i­ty just get­ting that stuff out. You didn’t even have time to put a thought into it. You’re just pret­ty much just spit­ting the pre­scrip­tions out.

Do you like your job?

I do because I appre­ci­ate what it’s giv­en me in my life. I nev­er feel like I’ve com­plete­ly learned every­thing, and I love that because I like to learn.

If I start feel­ing frus­trat­ed, I just remind myself that phar­ma­cy gave me every­thing I expect­ed out of it. The rea­son I went into phar­ma­cy was so that I could have a fam­i­ly and still have some­thing chal­leng­ing and inter­est­ing to do as a profession.

I always tell my chil­dren that I took the prac­ti­cal route. When I got out of school, I knew what kind of job I was going to have.

There are times when I won­der what it would have been like if I had done what I loved to do. I mean I don’t have a pas­sion for phar­ma­cy in that way. Writ­ing and read­ing is my pas­sion. My dream job would be like an edi­tor of a mag­a­zine or a book editor.

But I still don’t have any regrets. Once I got this idea, I was going to make it hap­pen. And that’s one thing, I tell my kids. To me, I’m liv­ing proof that if you just set your mind to some­thing and you work hard enough, you can do it. I just wasn’t going to take No’ for an answer. 

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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