Hugs and drugs

By Tara Cavanaugh

The generic liquor store along Plymouth Road in Redford looks like many others in the area. When you walk in, you see a wall of refrigerated alcohol beneath Bud Light plaques and banners. You see aisles of candy and nonperishable food. You might see a disheveled man sipping from a paper bag. You probably won't notice, in the back corner, past a stand of cell phone accessories and nudie magazines, a small window and three chairs.
The window is Crown Pharmacy, a 200-square-foot space that serves thousands of clients each year. Its specialty is medications for HIV/AIDS and cancer, and its client base has grown almost entirely by word of mouth. The key to the pharmacy's success is in the small staff that makes each and every customer a member of their family.

'Part of her healing process is getting a hug from me'

Paul Archer is tall and piercingly handsome, with dark eyes and a deep voice. His face is kind and weathered. He wears a bandanna with skulls and crossbones.
It's comfortable, he says, and helps cover the hair that hasn't grown back. A few months ago, he received stem-cell replacement therapy for cancer. And 16 years ago, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Archer is a client of Crown Pharmacy, and he's also a pharmacy technician.
"Once you're diagnosed with a terminal disease and you have no reason to get up in the morning…" Archer trails off, hesitating. "Coming here really helped me get through it. Going on two years now."
"He's a very dear friend of me and the pharmacy. He's one success story because of the love that he's given us," says Val Randall, Crown Pharmacy's co-owner.
Archer uses his experience to counsel clients. "A lot of people have questions, a lot of people are afraid when they first are diagnosed," he says.
"Positive thinking has a lot to do with recovery. It really does."
Positive thinking and hugs, which the staff gives out in spades.
"I have a customer who comes in and she thinks – she really does believe this – part of her healing process is getting a hug from me. Every month," Randall says in her husky voice. "I'm not kidding."
The staff sends flowers to sick clients and even buys them gifts. On one rainy day last month, pharmacy technician Marcella Bassham brought in a baby outfit for a customer's newborn. Customers give the staff photos of their families, even their pets, which the staff sticks on the limited wall space.
Not all customers feel like family right away, though.
"We've had many people like that who are afraid," Randall says. "We have been known to go out there" – she points to the three chairs outside the window -"and we can sit and counsel. Marcella counseled a young man, who's been with us for 15 years now. When he first walked in the door, he had already planned his suicide. She went out and sat and talked to him for at least an hour. And they cried together and they talked together.
"It's not a death sentence anymore. If you take your meds, you're going to live. You have to want to live."

'They could live way better than they do'

Sometimes in the liquor store, you might see a well-dressed man with shiny shoes hanging in the Crown Pharmacy window. He'll look out of place with the liquor store clientele, but he'll be engrossed in conversation with Randall.
He's a drug salesman. Drug reps like him visit once or twice a month to talk about what drugs and new combinations are coming out next.
Relationships like these help Randall and co-owner Melinda Zaher keep their costs down, so they can charge customers less for medications.
Nearly 80 percent of Crown Pharmacy's business comes from HIV/AIDS and cancer medications. Randall motions to a tall shelf, and says they're all HIV/AIDS drugs. "Most pharmacies, you'll see maybe one or two of these bottles on the shelves. We have to keep a big count in because we can blow these out today."
How did the tiny pharmacy develop its specialty?
"It started when we got a forged prescription from a client," Zaher says. "It was so obvious that it'd been erased and somebody else had put their name in. So he was committing a crime to get his medicine. It was for AZT. It was the only one available at the time."
The problem was that Medicaid didn't kick in with its drug coverage for two weeks, but clients needed their medication immediately. Not everyone was able to pay out-of-pocket for drugs.
So Randall and Zaher advanced those customers their medications. "Sometimes we wouldn't get paid for those two weeks either," Zaher says. "We put it out there, not knowing whether we'd get paid or not. But it started our reputation as being there for people."
In 1989, when Zaher first purchased the space, the pharmacy was a neighborhood shop that filled maybe 24 prescriptions a day. Now, it fills up to 130 each day. And according to the drug reps who come by, Crown Pharmacy is one of the most patronized pharmacies in the state.
The pharmacy also fills pet prescriptions, too, often supplying drugs at cost. Many customers put their pets to sleep because they couldn't afford their own medication and their pets' as well, Bassham explains, tearing up.
"If it's a human medication that a pet can have, we sell it for what we pay for it," Randall says. "Some people give up their own food for their animals." A few vet offices know this, so they send clients to Crown who couldn't afford their pet's medications at regular pharmacy prices.
How does the pharmacy stay in business if it offers so many drugs at cost, and sometimes just doesn't get paid at all?
The sheer number of customers helps, along with the staff's reputation. The staff works with patients and their doctors to find the medications they need at a price they can afford. The staff also makes sure clients don't have more medication than they need – and therefore aren't sitting on thousands of dollars of unnecessary pills that could expire before they're used. This keeps costs down.
But there's another big money-saver here, too.
"I'll put it like this," Bassham says, nodding to Zaher and Randall. "They could live way better than they do. And they live way beneath what they could, to help everybody else. And that's the truth."

'Who's going to love my people?'

Over the years, the pharmacy has not gone unrecognized. It's received an award from KICK, an agency for African-American LGBTs, for its service to the HIV/AIDS community. It's also received an award from the Southeast Michigan Chapter of Nurses in AIDS Care.
The awards recognize the pharmacy's outstanding dedication to its clients – the staff who sometimes reopens the pharmacy after hours, who often drops off meds to homeless clients in a park.
Randall is 64 and Zaher is 59. They know they can't run the pharmacy forever. Do they ever plan to retire?
Randall doesn't like to think about it.
"Who's going to take care of our people? Nobody's going to love them like we do. Nobody's going to care like we do.
"We've had offers recently, from different people to buy us out, as we have had throughout the years. And I just – we think about it, we talk about it, it's too scary. I don't want anybody to touch my people. How would they live? How would I live without them?"
Randall looks away, and can't seem to answer. "I don't know. It's a tough question."
She would like a vacation, though. She hasn't had one in 11 years. She says the pharmacy recently cut its hours to give staff some more "daylight time." They used to be open six days a week, until 7 p.m. Now they're open five days until 6 p.m. every day except for Wednesday, when they close at 5.
"It's not that we wouldn't be there for them after hours," Randall says. "We have an after-hours number. And I live five minutes away. I come back and give them their meds. Or Melinda will come back. Or if someone calls and says, 'I'll be a half hour late,' we wait for them."
Randall looks around the small space, and the staff bustling around in it: Archer and Bassham fill prescriptions, and Zaher takes orders on the phone. And she smiles: "It's just the way we work."

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