Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Facing challenges head on: my life in pharmacy

by Shaheen Bhatia, Pharmacist/Manager, P&S Chemist, Ilford, Essex

I came to the UK aged just 7 as part of the exodus of Asians from Africa in the late 60s and early 70s. The family ended up displaced and bewildered in Birmingham in the middle of winter. This transition was just the first in a lifetime of challenges that I and my family would face.

My dad had had a really good job in Kenya, as an accountant for Brooke Bond, but racial prejudice meant he couldn’t get an equivalent job in the UK. Instead he became a mechanic on the buses, put himself through night school to become an electrical engineer with GEC and worked his way up to a foreman’s job. Sadly, discrimination again cost him his job, and he had a mental breakdown. We needed money, so aged 15 I asked the local pharmacy for a job to support the family. I loved the work, and that’s how I became a pharmacist.

I started breaking boundaries early: my mum was very traditional and religious, and expected me to get married, but I wanted a career first. I was the first girl to study physics at my school, helped and encouraged by a fantastic teacher.

I studied pharmacy in Brighton, where I met my husband Pummy. We were both ambitious and after we graduated, we moved to Essex together and began working as locums at a pharmacy with many South Asian customers.

Our ability to speak the same language as our patients made a huge difference to their confidence and understanding of their conditions and medicines. So, in July 1987, we bought a dilapidated former fish shop and converted it into our own community pharmacy. While my husband worked as the pharmacist, he was also an entrepreneur, opening a care home and a B&B, too.  I did locum sessions in other pharmacies, bringing my experiences and ideas back to our business. Things were going really well – we had a son, then a daughter, and were happy, working hard at jobs we loved and raising our new family.

Then suddenly, without warning, in 1995 my husband died in his sleep from a heart attack, leaving me and my children shocked and heartbroken.

On top of that, due to negative equity, the business had a total debt of £1million and I was raising two young children. I was at rock-bottom and many people told me that as a woman, I wouldn’t be able to manage the businesses. But I couldn’t walk away; my husband and I had promised to give our kids the best future we could. I faced the challenges head-on. The bank gave me breathing space, and after renegotiating my payments I threw myself into work and, after many years, cleared all my debts.

I’m still passionate about pharmacy. It’s a career like no other, where you can really make a difference, especially to marginalised communities.

For example, most pharmacies in my area refused to take part in needle exchanges, in 1994, but we did and I developed a good relationship with parents who began asking for help with their children’s drug use. Working with my local drug and alcohol team, we piloted the first supervised methadone service in London. The pharmacy started winning awards, and I was invited to sit on the local NHS contractors’ board, then the Local Pharmaceutical Committee – for eight years I was the only woman there.

And we’re still pushing to make a difference. Recently, we ran the first community pharmacy pilot in Europe providing the buprenorphine prolonged-release injection to treat opioid addiction. The stability that has provided to clients who struggle has been fantastic to see. One of them told me it was the first time he’d seen himself as a normal human being, and we get calls from pharmacists in other parts of the United Kingdom wanting to replicate the model, which is really inspiring.

I remarried in 2010, and my husband Chris looks after our design and social media, ensuring that the information we provide is high quality and communicates well. I can’t believe next year is the pharmacy’s 35th anniversary!

The pandemic has shown that communities need pharmacies more than ever, and looking back I’ve been so lucky to find a career that still I love.

I’m prouder than ever to call myself a pharmacist.

We want to encourage voices that express the diversity of lived experiences in the profession as part of our inclusion and diversity work. If you’d like to share your story, contact [email protected] or get involved through our ABCD group

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