‘I would get out tomorrow if I could.’Emily, 22 | Rock Springs, WY
Note: Alan and Max are both featured as interviewers. To distinguish Alan’s voice in the original interview from his narration of the podcast, we marked Alan(N) while narrating.
Emily: They don't regard us as healthcare workers, you know? The fact that we have a drive-through, people think that they should be able to drop off their prescription and come back in five minutes and have it done. Like, again, this is not McDonald's. It's not Burger King, you know. But a lot of days like that's how it feels – like we're working in a fast food joint. And it's ridiculous, you know?
Alan(N): You’re listening to Emily, a 22 year old pharmacy technician who works in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five healthcare workers have left their jobs. Emily may soon become one of them.
Emily: This year has like shown me like it is time to get out now. Like I'm done.
Alan(N): In this oral history, Emily reflects on her time as a pharmacy tech one year since the start of the pandemic. We’ll get a closer look into her life and learn about the chain of events that led to such debilitating conditions in this overlooked sector of healthcare.
Emily: And like, we are the first line… of healthcare I feel like. Again, you can come to us without an appointment, without paying a copay, and ask us whatever you need to know. I thought this was just gonna be a job where you push pills across the tray, you know, and it's not. There's more to it.
Alan: We’d love to hear.
Emily: My name is Emily. I work at Smith's pharmacy as a technician. So filling prescriptions, typing prescriptions, that sort of stuff.
Alan(N): We met Emily in May of 2021 inside of Smith’s Food and Drug, one of the biggest regional supermarkets in the Rockies. The pharmacy counter is a bit hidden. To reach it, you have to either walk into the corner of the grocery store or pull into the drive-through. Once you’re there, though, it’s easy to spot Emily. She wears glasses and has baby blue painted fingernails that match her disposable mask. Even though her mouth is covered, you get the feeling that she’s usually smiling. Her name tag is bold and ornamented, a stark contrast to the monochrome cabinets and mysteriously labeled bottles behind her. She’s enthusiastic about sharing her story, but has a busy schedule, so we meet the following night in a hotel lounge.
Emily: We say that Jackson isn't real Wyoming. It's beautiful up here. But this is not the true culture of Wyoming. The rest of Wyoming is like 10 years behind the times and they're really into their conspiracy theories.
In Rock Springs, even before the pandemic. I had a lady one time. I asked her if she'd gotten her flu shot yet for the year. This was like 2019. And she was like, “Well, I don't get flu shots because I'm worried about what the Russians are putting in them.” So like, even before COVID, the anti vaxxers are rampant down there.
You see a lot of weird stuff in pharmacy like I had some old lady come in one time. And she had like, hit herself in the boob with a drill. And she like, pulled her muumuu up and was like, “Look at this, look at this bruise.” And I was like, “Put your stuff, like put it away!” Like, you're 70. I don't need to see that. And it was bad. Like it was purple and blue and stuff. You know, like, we see lots of weird stuff happen in pharmacy. So like, the conspiracies are kind of just like something you hear and you forget about because we have bigger issues to deal with.
Alan: Does it at all feel like a mental health hotline?
Emily: No, it definitely does in certain situations. We definitely deal with people in crisis a lot. I think it's definitely been more of a thing during the pandemic where people will just come down to the pharmacy just to talk. Or people will call and refill medication they don't actually need refilled just so they can come and pick it up and be like, “How are you?”, you know, and talk for a few minutes.
We used to have a woman named Sharon who... it was kind of a love-hate relationship. She passed away probably about six months ago. But she'd come down and she'd complain “There's no egg noodles in this store!” And, you know, like just complain about the weirdest stuff to the pharmacy, or she’d call and be like, “Who makes the best chocolate cake in town?” And we were like, “Sharon, we're not the phonebook. Like have you ever heard of Google?” One time she called and was telling me about how much she loved Obama and how scared she was about Trump. And she told me, like, her plans for when she died and where she wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread. Like, people call and talk about just the weirdest stuff with the pharmacy. Because yeah, it's just an avenue... It's one way to socialize in this world that they're afraid to socialize in now. I think especially our older people. They're afraid to go out. So they call us instead to talk.
Alan(N): As you can tell, pharmacy techs like Emily play many different roles, and at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of gratitude for that. It didn’t last for long, though.
Emily: Like we had people buy us coffee, we had people buy us pizza one day. We had… one of the programs we work with that helps adults with special needs – They sent us flowers one day. We had a family come through the drive thru and they had all these signs that said, like, “Thank you pharmacy workers.” And that sort of stuff happened and that was really wonderful because… pharmacy is often forgotten as a part of health care. And so it was nice to see that appreciation for us as well as [for] the doctors and nurses in town. But that has died off since then. And yeah, now people are just back to being nasty and bitter and impatient. And again, like, I think that they're worse than they were before.
People don't understand. I think there's definitely a disconnect. We had one lady come in one time. And she asked for Sudafed, and we didn't have any and she was like, “Well, why are you out?” And we were like, “Well, we got shorted in our last order. All of our drugs have been on backorder.” And she was like, “Well, why did they short you?” And so my manager comes around the corner and she's like, “Do you realize we're in the middle of a pandemic? Sudafed is gonna be the first thing to go off the shelves because it helps with congestion.”
I think people don't understand, like, medications don't just magically appear in your bottle. We have to order it from somewhere, like they come all the way from Arizona. If the roads are closed, they're not gonna get to you. If the factories are closed, they're not gonna get to you. If the factories are low on it, they're not gonna get to you.
Alan(N): Drug shortages became a major issue around the world, but that’s just one of many factors that burdened pharmacy workers.
Emily: Our RX count has gone way up in the last year and a half. A normal day before was about 400 prescriptions a day. Now it's pretty common to see 600 prescriptions a day. And now on top of all of that they’re expecting us to do the COVID vaccinations. And that is a huge stress on our pharmacy. So typically, we have two pharmacists. And then we have about six techs working to manage a load of 600 prescriptions a day. And now they're expecting us to do a COVID vaccination every 15 minutes.
And that's been a really big issue, not just in our store, but all across America [are] these pharmacists that are just done because they're being overworked, underpaid. It becomes an issue of patient safety at this point. Like, you are being so bombarded from every side, right. Like phone calls from the doctor checking to see if this person has allergies, checking the 50 prescriptions that are in your queue, giving shots, counseling patients. All of these things are expected of them for no extra money with no extra help.
You know, like there are some days that we go home and we're like, who did we kill today? Like, who did we give the wrong medication to? And I know like that's a terrible thing to say. But like I lay awake at night and worry about that sometimes because there's been like a couple times throughout the pandemic like on really busy days where if you don't have a pharmacist that is ON their stuff like is not TOTALLY focused that we've had mix ups.
And we've had two prescriptions now that have been written for methylphenidate, which is ritalin – like a stimulant right? – an ADHD medication. And the technician typed it in for methadone, which is an opioid. So like complete opposites. If you're giving methadone to like a seven year old, it's gonna kill them. You know? And we've had two prescriptions that have been mis-typed like that and have almost gone out to the patient. Like we've only realized, as we were handing the bottles to the patient that it wasn't the right medication. So that's gone through two pharmacists, four technicians, and nobody caught it because we're that busy.
Max: You think that's particular this year?
Emily: Yes, for sure.
And I know like the Walgreens in Rock Springs has one pharmacist right now. That's it. Like working seven days a week. There are stories of pharmacists coming out of places like CVS that have had heart attacks at work because they couldn't get anybody to cover their shifts. Like there was one a couple weeks ago that had a heart attack and died.
I'm a part of a few pharmacy activism groups on Facebook. And it's just like the stories that are coming out of there are very sad and very scary.
Alan: Do you ever, like, dream about… You know, you're talking about how you have trouble sleeping at night because of these mistakes that you might make. Do you ever dream about it or anything like that?
Emily: Oh, yeah, I dream about the pharmacy all the time.
I had a dream one time that... it was right when COVID started. And we've definitely seen an uptick in like anti-anxiety, benzodiazepine medication. So lorazepam, Xanax, those sort of things. So I had a dream that we had the last stock bottle of Xanax in the entire country. And we were like hiding out in a school bus somewhere. And like me and two of the pharmacists had to decide who got Xanax and who didn't. So like people would come and be like, “I need it. Like I take it three times a day, I'm gonna go through withdrawals!” And we were like, “We don't have enough for you! I'm sorry. Like, we're saving this for so and so,” you know?
But yeah, it's definitely… Like, I feel if you don't have an established balance, it's a job that can take up your entire life and consume, like, everything that you are.
Max: Do you think it’s consumed everything that you are during the pandemic?
Emily: There was definitely a few months where I let it consume me. And there's days, even now, where you go home and you are so exhausted from your day – like a 12 hour shift on your feet, you get a 20 minute lunch.
Max: A 20 minute lunch?
Emily: Yeah, yeah, we take 20 minutes in the back. Like I don't know, who came up with that plan for a 12 hour shift. That's not legal –
Max: An MBA came up with it –
Emily: So yeah, yeah!
But after days like that, like you get home, you sit on the couch, and you do like... There were days that I could not even take my trash out because I was like I am done. Like this is all of the energy that I have had, and it's gone.
Alan: Do you feel like these experiences from the past year have changed your perspective on being a technician?
Emily: For sure.
Alan: Do you feel like you wanna continue that or has it changed?
Emily: Being a technician has always been a temporary career for me. I'm going to school to be a high school history teacher. But I [sighs]. This year has like shown me like it is time to get out now. Like I'm done.
This is not what I meant to do forever. I'm not passionate about pushing pills. Like I feel like a cog in the machine. I feel like I'm enabling the opioid crisis in our country. Like 90% of the issues we have in our country would be fixed if people would lose a few pounds and exercise every day and eat right.
But people aren’t willing to do that. People want a pill to fix their issues. There's diet pills. Like, stimulants go out the door like nothing else. People take narcotics to forget and get high. Like, I just feel like… yeah, I feel like a cog in the machine. I feel like part of the problem. And that's not what I'm aiming to do. Like I want my life to be a legacy of helping people and being part of the solution. I think it's possible to do as a teacher, you know, but it's hard [Laughs].
And so I told my boss, like there was, there was a day, probably in November/December that I was like, I am this close to quitting. Like, I don't even know what I'm going to do. But I don't care at this point. I am done. Like, this is not... I can't deal with the abuse. I can't deal with being like... It's terrible on your body. I have plantar fasciitis and I'm 22. Like, that's not normal. I wear orthopedic shoes. You know?
Anybody that wants to go into pharmacy, I tell them like really rethink your decision because this is not for you. I would get out tomorrow if I could, but again, I can't, you know? It's not worth it anymore. It's not worth the abuse. Because we put up with a lot. And $20 an hour isn't worth that. So…
Max: As a young person, I think that's so essential to learn about and then see…this is how COVID is impacting folks. This is how it’s potentially reshaping careers.
Emily: And I appreciate you guys giving me the platform to do so, you know? If you take anything away from this, it's like, treat your pharmacists nicely, treat your techs nicely. Like help out. If they tell you it's gonna be two hours be like, no problem, I will go get lunch and I will be back, you know? People… Yeah, like, this job, even before the pandemic, kind of made me lose my faith in humanity. But after the pandemic, like, I am more nihilistic than ever... about the world and about people and our ability to love and care for one another. Like when we're in crisis mode, people don't care. People don't care about anybody but themselves. So…
Alan(N): Emily’s oral history is part of a larger project called Generation Pandemic, which focuses on how the pandemic is shaping the lives of emerging adults in America. To read more stories like Emily’s please visit generationpandemicproject.com or follow the instagram page @generationpandemic_. Thanks for listening.
Interview Date: May 4, 2021