Pharmacies are at the heart of Cork communities as Covid battle goes on

Local pharmacies have played a major role in 2020. DEBORAH HICKEY talks to staff at one community pharmacy in Cork city about the challenges they faced
Pharmacies are at the heart of Cork communities as Covid battle goes on

Christina Carolan, Jill O'Donnell, Louise Lane, Niamh Kerrigan and Elaine Davis at Marian Pharmacy.

“ DURING our time at The Marian Pharmacy, we have seen many changes, but nothing as life-changing as Covid.”

In the 30 years Christina Carolan and her husband, Pat, have served the people of Ballyphehane and Turners Cross, they have enjoyed a very close bond with the community.

The family-run pharmacy, on Friars walk, is not only a trusted source of medical advice and supply, it is a warm and welcoming space where customers benefit from long-standing relationships with staff.

“We know all our customers and their extended families,” says Christina. “They are not just customers, they are also our friends. We provide a professional service which is both caring and friendly.”

The Marian pharmacy has faced many challenges on the frontline, throughout the Covid pandemic, but maintaining a distance from their customers is perhaps the most challenging of all.

Christina Carolan at The Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.
Christina Carolan at The Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.

Christina recalls how she, and her team, navigated the earliest stages of the pandemic, while managing the fears and concerns of the public.

“Initially, as with all of society, anxiety levels were high, in both customers and staff. Covid was an unknown to us all. We were very aware of the important role The Marian Pharmacy had to play, however, and we implemented every precaution recommended by the HSE and Irish Pharmacy Union.

“We think we managed to gain public confidence, early on, by reassuring our customers that their needs would continue to be met.”

The Marian Pharmacy faced a surge in demand for its services throughout lockdown. The daily operation of the business had to change radically, and rapidly, to safely meet this demand.

Initially, opening hours were reduced and customers were asked to queue outside while measures were put in place to ensure safe access. Behind the scenes the staff were divided into two teams of five, working full-time and on alternate days, to protect continuity of service. The physical lay-out of the premises was changed and a one way system introduced.

With hand sanitising stations, perspex screens, masked staff and strict Covid protocols in place, the pharmacy was able to resume normal service and opening hours within weeks. For customers in high-risk categories, and those cocooning, a delivery service was introduced.

Pharmacist Louise Lane at Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.
Pharmacist Louise Lane at Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.

Managing pharmacist, Louise Lane, enjoys the social aspect of her work: “We know all of our customers by name as it’s a very local setting. They love coming in to have a chat with us or read the daily paper while they wait for their prescriptions.”

She admits that, initially, working under level 5 restrictions was tough: “It was incredibly busy and anxiety levels were very high. Customers were worried that they would run out of vital medication. Once the public realised pharmacies would remain open throughout lockdown, things did calm a little, but limited access to doctors meant that the pharmacy remained the first port of call for medical queries.”

As the staff settled into new routines and procedures. Louise says the public have been very understanding and supportive throughout.

“I feel that the customers were so grateful for the service being provided to them at such an anxious time.”

The day-to-day work life has changed for all members of staff in the pharmacy, but for those with underlying medical conditions themselves, the changes have been more significant.

Elaine Davis at The Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.
Elaine Davis at The Marian Pharmacy, Friars Walk, Cork.

Pharmacy technician, Elaine Davis, suffers from an autoimmune disease which has led to her requiring a double hip replacement in recent years. The treatment used to manage her condition leaves her immune system very compromised.

The mother of two young children remembers the fear she experienced when Covid-19 first struck. “So little was known about the virus in the beginning and I was very aware that I was in the high risk category. I just didn’t know if I contracted Covid if I would survive it.”

Elaine faced a dilemma. “I love my work. My colleagues and the customers are my friends. I’m from Ballyphehane myself and I really wanted to continue to serve my community and play my part, especially at such a crucial time.”

She eventually made the difficult decision to stay at home from work for a number of months. Elaine has since returned, to a new position, working in the upstairs dispensary.

Perspex screening is installed throughout the pharmacy to allow staff to safely distance from each other and all areas are sanitised four times daily. Elaine feels confident in her safety at work noting, “Christina and Pat have been so understanding and accommodating. I’m delighted to be back at work but I really do miss interacting with the customers.”

In spite of enduring a difficult year, which, on top of everything else, saw a flood bring the dispensary and shop ceiling down in July, Christina highlights positives.

“The public and the staff have been incredible. A former employee, Christna Neiland, offered to come in and help us out through lockdown. The people of the community were very generous with their time and quick to help neighbours. Our local postman, Dermot Curley, offered his services, and invaluable knowledge of the area, from day one.”

Christina and Pat would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the customers, too many to mention, who have been so thoughtful sending in gifts, cards and even pizza deliveries, in appreciation of the staff.

With hopes of a safe vaccination being rolled out in the new year, staff are optimistic that the uptake will be high, and that a more normal life can resume.

In the meantime, Christna would encourage people to continue to support local businesses, especially those who were forced to close due to Covid restrictions, throughout the year.

“It’s more important than ever to shop locally this Christmas and, as every year, all are welcome to drop into The Marian Pharmacy to enter our free Christmas hamper draw, if you are in the area .”

Christina ,and all the staff, are looking forward to returning to the close relationship they enjoyed with their customers pre-Covid. They are proud to have served on the frontline throughout the pandemic.

“We feel privileged that, during these stressful times, we were in a position, in our own small way, to help the community of Ballyphehane and Turners Cross and to repay their loyalty to us over the years.

“We are looking forward to when we can put the chairs back in the shop and welcome our customers back in to sit down, have a chat or read the paper — just like old times.’

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