Growing up in Canberra, Kayla Lee’s experience of a trip to the pharmacist was like anyone’s.
It was a place to pick up off-the-shelf medical products, browse the surgical steel earrings and contemplate packets of Glucojel jelly beans while you waited for your scripts to be filled.
Like most, her interactions with pharmacists were limited to purchasing prescriptions and the occasional recommendation for over-the-counter medications.
This understanding continued when she started working in a pharmacy after school in year 11, sparking an interest in the field, and while she completed a Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Science and a Master of Pharmacy.
It wasn’t until the University of Canberra alumna started splitting her time between Capital Chemist branches in Wanniassa and Braidwood that her perception shifted.
As the only pharmacy in the small Southern Tablelands, Braidwood Capital Chemist’s clientele often looks for a little more from their pharmacists, according to Kayla.
“Being in a rural location changes the dynamic between a pharmacist and their customer because you’re often the only healthcare professional available in their time of need,” she says.
“There is sometimes a sense of urgency for pharmacists in rural and remote areas that you don’t necessarily have in cities because folks in those areas don’t always have access to healthcare services.
“In Canberra I can advise a customer to see their GP and they can usually get an appointment that same day. In Braidwood, while we can sometimes call a doctor and ask if they can see someone urgently, it’s not always possible.”
Without doctors available, if a pharmacist can’t help, people must be sent to hospitals that are usually a good distance away.
Six months before the 2019/20 Blacksummer Bushfires hit, Kayla took over as co-owner of the Braidwood branch – and this gap became more evident.
“I distinctly remember the bushfires and how heavily people relied on us,” she says.
“We opened an extra day because the demand for our services at the time was overwhelming. We became super important to the community.”
Normally closed on Sundays, Capital Chemist Braidwood became a seven-day operation to help the community cope with the additional complications brought about by poor air quality.
It shored up the strategic partnership with the business’s Canberra counterpart when highways were closed, cutting off drug supply and forcing Kayla and her team to shuttle medicine from the Wanniassa branch to Braidwood.
The role of the rural pharmacist was highlighted again during COVID when the Braidwood branch extended its opening hours to cater to demand.
Kayla describes it as “an intense time”, compounded when the pharmacy became a vaccination provider.
“GPs in the areas were doing it, but there was quite a long wait. If people wanted the vaccination sooner, they had to travel long distances,” Kayla says.
“The pharmacy would’ve administered more than 2000 COVID vaccines now, which is quite a few in a town of 1200 people.”
Despite the often charged nature of her work as a rural pharmacist, Kayla says the value she can bring to the local community outweighs the challenges.
“It’s a lot more personal, the relationships between country folk and their pharmacists. As a rural pharmacist you get to know them better; you know their whole family and what’s going on with their kids,” she says.
“We sponsor community groups such as the local soccer club and awards at the school and are involved in the community so we get to see those families in other settings.
“It’s built on a lot of trust and respect on both sides, which is constructive in helping to manage their health.
“Of course I get satisfaction from both of the pharmacies I work at, but I will say the pharmacy in a rural setting is seen as a pillar of the community. Having that role is a privileged position.”