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Jack’s Pharmacy

December 14, 2015

Photo on 2013-02-22 at 09.03

December 14, 2015

Jack’s Pharmacy on Center Street in downtown Hardin, Montana, had been in business thirty-five years in 1985 when I met Pharmacist Jack Petelin.  He was still only about 60.  He sometimes hired one of us pharmacists from Billings Deaconess to fill in.  He and his wife usually wanted to, oh, I don’t know, probably go take naps.  Or go fishing.  They were getting on in years.  They looked old to me, but then I think they were smokers.

Today I found online a 1984 application for downtown Hardin to become a Federal Historic District, so I read a snippet about Jack’s building.  He had bought the place in 1950 from another pharmacist, a man whose first name was Dar.

Me and my baby-boomer classmates graduated in 1982 from Missoula.  Back then we had to have about a year of apprenticeship before we could get licensed, so we worked beside preceptors like Jack Petelin.

Jack and his contemporaries were the men and women just out of the service from World War II, and they were eventually practicing in small towns all over Montana.  We all knew members of the “class of 1950,” some of whom taught at the university in Missoula or ran the Montana Board of Pharmacy.

Those old pharmacists had influenced me as a child.  In the 5th grade I liked developing pictures in my basement darkroom, so pharmacists sold me film and chemicals in Missoula and in Dillon.  Their children were some of my fellow students in school.  I always liked pharmacists.  One of my classmates in the 4th grade declared with obvious pride, “My dad is a pharmacist!”  Wow, I thought.  I’ll bet he knows all about chemistry.

Jack’s pharmacy was easy to find on a corner.  His wife greeted me as I passed between the greeting card display and the long cosmetics counter along the side of the long store.  The pharmacy, with shelves of drug products, occupied the back portion.  A door led to a back room.  You get the picture.  Sure, lots of over the counter remedies were on display in the middle of the room.

Jack was garrulous.  He showed me where things were.  In those days most pharmacies were laid out pretty much the same.  Counter, typewriter, shelves.  You just had to know if the drug products were alphabetical by brand or generic name.  Or both.  Jack did both.  He showed me the water to reconstitute the kids’ antibiotics.  The balance for weighing ingredients when compounding creams.  There, on the floor by the wall, were the totes from the wholesaler.  Here were the labels for the typewriter.  The drawers had thirty years worth of prescriptions, in serial order.  A busy day for Jack was about 30 prescriptions, so he got good at talking.

He showed me how to price prescriptions.  Cost plus ten percent plus $2 dispensing fee.  You figured cost from the letters Jack wrote on the stock bottles.  Example: ATTT/C would be $30/100. We just had to remember the code word, “PHARMOCIST.”  P = 1, H = 2, A = 3, and so on, to T = 0.  I didn’t have to ring up sales on a cash register at Jack’s because they had hired a woman to run the front of the store.

The long skinny store had windows in the front only, despite being on a corner.  I don’t know why the side of Jack’s had no windows.Well, that’s not true.  I remember several small windows shed light at the back at the pharmacy, closer to the alley.  The main store had a creaky wooden floor and smelled like an old building, like an old pharmacy.  You know, like iodine, perhaps, or bromine.

I had plenty of time to study the store because no customers came in for hours at a time.  I’m almost sure my first day was a Thursday or Friday when business was light.  I looked through the drugs on the shelf.  Jack said I could pull any that were beyond expiration date.  In 1985, or so, the concept of expiration dates was still kind of new.  Some of the older bottles at Jack’s had lot numbers only.  I pulled them and dropped them into a box for Jack to get rid of later.  Some of the bottles looked like antiques.  I wondered if Jack had put them back on the shelf after I left.

A pharmacist from Crow Agency Indian Health Service called me on the phone to transfer a prescription.  After I gave him the information he said he would probably give the patient a different dosage form of the medication.  You know, capsule instead of liquid.  “Wow,” I said, “you can do that?”  “I’ll just get one of our doctors to sign off on it,” he said.  I was impressed.

Hours passed.  I perched on a stool behind the counter.  In those days, the Board of Pharmacy required that the floor in the area behind the counter be raised, like 6 inches, above the rest of the floor.  I studied the street out the front.

Many other antiquated pharmacy rules were in effect, or only recently rescinded:  physicians sometimes had written on the prescription not to label with the name of the drug or the ingredients.  Another was that pharmacists were not allowed to tell the patient what the medicine was for or tell much of anything else, really.  In school one of our professors had said (with a sly smile) that if we were dispensing penicillin and someone asked what it was for, we should say, “It is always used for syphilis.”  Not an outright lie, but misleading.  Okay, a lie.

Another bit of advice if the doctor had written “do not label,” was to tell the patient the full generic name.  Example, instead of “Thorazine,” one might say, chlorpromazine hydrochloride.  “They will have forgotten it before they get halfway out the door,” he said. (Sly smile.)  That was Doctor Wales.  He taught a class called “dispensing.”  He graded us on the straightness of the label on the bottle or vial.

He had us mix up a few ounces of codeine cough syrup, but the expectorant was syrup of ipecac, a drug that causes vomiting.  I doubt if anyone even tasted it.

A painful memory of working at Jack’s Pharmacy was when a young woman, a Native, came back to the counter and asked me what she should do for her child with a raw-looking sore on his thigh.  I suggested bacitracin ointment, which she bought.

I should have suggested that she take him to the clinic immediately for probable impetigo.  In those days a doctor probably would have prescribed an oral antibiotic.  Just one of those persistent memories.

I’ll bet I didn’t dispense more than a dozen prescriptions at Jack’s that day.

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