Born 86 years ago, Pharm. (Mrs) Modupe Oluwole is one of the pioneers of hospital pharmacy practice in Nigeria. With a vast wealth of experience garnered within the country and overseas, the octogenarian pharmacist has had memorable stints in paediatric, geriatric, maternity, infectious diseases and general hospital practice.
In this recent chat with Pharmanews in Lagos, Oluwole, who founded the now rested Modus Pharmacy in Surulere, Lagos, bares her mind on a number of issues affecting pharmacy practice in Nigeria. She also shares some of her life experiences after retirement from active service. Excerpts
Ma, can you tell us a little about your background and education?
I attended the oldest girl’s secondary school in Lagos. When we graduated, the school was moved to Ibadan to form St Ann’s School, Ibadan. We celebrated our 150th anniversary a few months ago. After that, I went to pharmacy school, Yaba, and finished in December, 1954.
After graduation, I first worked with Kingsway Stores Dispensary. There was a pharmacy inside that big Kingsway building – that was where I first worked with a few of my colleagues. One was my classmate, Mrs Onasanya of Bola Chemists, and two others, were my senior colleagues at the pharmacy school. After that, we decided to work with the government.
So we went to general hospital, Lagos, where I worked briefly before being transferred to Massey Street Maternity Hospital. That was the only maternity hospital in Lagos at that time. After some time, I went abroad to join my fiancée in 1956. We got married and I started working in a few hospitals there, ranging from general hospital, paediatric hospital, infectious diseases hospital and lastly, I worked at a geriatric hospital, taking care of old people. So I was able to gain a lot of experience.
After about five-and-a-half years, we returned home. Then I started work again at Poly Clinic before it was turned to Children’s hospital. When the Lagos State Teaching Hospital was started, I became one of the pioneer staff to be employed as a pharmacist. I spent about 10 years there before our retirement during General Murtala Mohammed era. Then, I started my own community pharmacy business, named Modus Pharmacy.
When my husband became a priest, we had to move from place to place. While we were still in mainland Lagos, I was still able to manage the business until we were posted to Epe. When I got to Epe, I tried managing for one month, then I saw it wasn’t that easy. So I stayed back at home. Somebody was in charge but I wasn’t quite pleased because I wanted the best for the pharmacy. Already, people in the area had become very familiar with the pharmacy as a place where you would get what you wanted, I didn’t want the name to be tarnished. I carried on, until we came back to Lagos. By the time I got to Lagos, I tried to push further but old age was creeping in, so things were not the same again. I decided to let the business go rather than spoil the name I have made.
During your years of practice, you concentrated on hospital pharmacy practice. What prompted your decision to study Pharmacy and narrow down your practice to hospital pharmacy?
I wanted to study Medicine and my father was very much interested in me studying Medicine. My father was already saving up for me to go abroad to study Medicine, which was the only place you could study Medicine at that time. But when it became impossible, he begged me to study Pharmacy and that, maybe after some time, I would opt out to study Medicine. That was how I went to pharmacy school. I enjoyed it; and when I went abroad, there was a controversy about my certificate but when they saw my performance, they were satisfied and offered me employment in all the places I have earlier mentioned.
I was going once a week to man all these pharmacies. My boss at that time was a very strict woman but was very fond of me. I did all these, until we returned home. At that time in Nigeria, it wasn’t easy to set up a pharmacy. I first went to Kingsway dispensaries where I worked during the holiday. After this, I moved to hospital pharmacy practice and since then, I have been in hospital pharmacy practice.
When would you consider the most memorable time in your years of practice?
When I was in LUTH, I became the acting head of Pharmacy Department and I instilled discipline. Coincidentally, three of my classmates at the pharmacy school were there with me.
There was a vacancy then and the chairman of the board, a very strict man, Professor Orisejolomi Thomas, was asked who would take over as head of the department. He wasted no time in recommending me and said he had confidence in me. That was how I took over and I enjoyed working with my team.
Discipline was perfect and my classmates working with me cooperated very well. We ensured that drugs were always available in the hospital. There was a time a professor came for drugs and we didn’t have it. It was a May & Baker product. So we phoned May & Baker and they said that particular drug when imported was always sent to the north because the particular illness which the drug was used for was rampant in the north; so they didn’t have it in Lagos at all.
I went to Professor Thomas to complain that I had problems; so he got in touch with one of the top army officials in government and they radioed their branch in London and they gave me time to meet the airplane crew at Ikeja airport to receive the drugs.
There were few cases like that where I had to go the extra mile to render services, instead of just announcing that the drug wasn’t available and then sit down to do nothing to help the situation. I raised the standard, not just through personal efforts, but through the help of God and the cooperation of the people working with me.
Looking back now, how would you assess the current state of service delivery in our hospitals and healthcare facilities?
I don’t want to criticise. People are doing their best but sometimes I don’t think their best is good enough for Nigeria. When I left LUTH, a classmate of mine took over and did his best. He carried on with the work. But now, I don’t even know anybody there again. They are all gone. All of them are gone but the sad thing is that you go to the hospital, drugs are prescribed for you and they give you the prescription to go out and buy. There are pharmacies around the hospital where you go to buy drugs. You no longer receive prescription and you go straight to the hospital pharmacy department to obtain the drugs, even if you have to pay for it.
Those days, when you were in the ward, you didn’t have to send people to go and buy drugs for you. Every morning, baskets were sent from the wards to the pharmacy department. A request was made, then you would fill the baskets and change all the labels that needed to be changed. That was the first work every morning in the pharmacy department.
I don’t know if they still do that in the department these days. These days, when there are no drugs, the patient will ask a member of his family to go out and buy them.
What are the areas of pharmacy practice in Nigeria that you would like to see improvements?
I would like to see that these pharmacies are manned by pharmacists. Most of the pharmacies all over the places now are owned by laymen and they just put somebody there. It’s only in a few cases that you see a pharmacist there.
For instance, a pharmacy was opened a few doors from me here, but each time I send somebody there and they do something wrong, I send a message back to them and over time I could see the improvement. For instance, selling tablets in envelopes without labelling it. I will send it back and insist that they label the drug properly. Now, they know what I can’t take; so when I send people there, they telephone me to get clarifications on what I want. They make sure they try to do the right thing, at least with me, and I want to assume they do the same with other people also.
How has life in retirement been?
It’s being lovely. It was hard at first because I was bitter. Everybody knew I did my best for the pharmacy department; so when it happened, people felt bad and fought my case in the administration department but the management was adamant. That was when I established Modus Pharmacy and since the pharmacy was doing fine, I felt happy. People would tell their wards to go to Modus Pharmacy for their drugs and if you returned with drugs not packaged in my branded pack, they would send them back.
I was happy with the way the pharmacy was going but when my husband joined the church ministry, it wasn’t too easy for me, because in the ministry you have to work very closely with your husband. I tried for four years to keep running the pharmacy but it was not working as the ministry work was constantly demanding for my time; that was why I shut the pharmacy down.
How would you react to the hydra-headed issue of patent medicine vendors intruding into pharmacy practice? How would you like regulators to tackle this problem?
This problem is not new. It’s been there since when we were in practice. Patent medicine dealers would want to pose as pharmacists. At some point, my husband worked at Holy Trinity Church, Ebutte Ero, along Adeniji Adele Road. When we went there, I saw people hawking drugs and I was surprised. Then I saw their depot and so many things done wrong, I became sad because there was nothing I could do. There was a day inspectors went there. Those patent medicine dealers gathered a crowd and surrounded them. They were almost assaulted but God was kind and they ran away.
It’s been like that from time immemorial and I am praying to God and hope this thing will be sorted out. How can you just come out with standard six certificate, open a pharmacy and then think you know it all? Do you know what pharmacists go through to get certified? At the Association of Lady Pharmacists, there was a time we went round educating people not to buy drugs from just anybody.
I think the government is not doing enough. How can the patent medicine dealers take the PCN to court? It’s unheard of. As pharmacists, we have to put our feet down because if we don’t, pharmacy technicians and patent medicine dealers will take over our profession.
Is any of your children or grandchildren a pharmacist?
I have four children. Two of my grandchildren are married but I am not a great-grandmother yet. I am praying for that. The youngest of my grandchildren is seven years and the oldest of my children is 63 years and my last child just turned 50 years.
None of them took to my husband’s profession as an engineer. When they saw me struggling at the pharmacy business, they said no they couldn’t go through all the activities, ranging from buying the products, sorting them out, setting up and dealing with the patients. They were not ready for all that. None is a doctor and none is a pharmacist.
One of my daughters got married to a doctor but unfortunately the husband passed on. One of my grandchildren is now trying to go into Medicine.
If given another chance again, would you choose pharmacy as a profession?
I would. I would choose it over Medicine because of the satisfaction I derived from it. Like I do say, anytime you go to a hospital, you must necessarily come to the pharmacy. It’s the first and last port of call.
What advice do you have for young pharmacists who want to keep fit and retire gracefully the way you have done?
Naturally, I’m not a lazy person. I want to do things myself and my family members know this. But when you retire and you don’t have something doing, your body will relax and that is when trouble starts.
Like I told my children, when I clocked 80 years and they were worried that I still go to the kitchen to cook even when they hired a chef for me, I told them, I like to cook myself. But with so much pressure from them, I gave in and now I am feeling it. I thought I should have put my feet down but they would not agree with me. So that is why I’m struggling to walk now. I’m using a walking stick now. Otherwise, I am the go-go type.
Even in my workplace, you can’t work with me and be lazy. The young people should cultivate the habit of being active even in old age. So, whether they have their own pharmacy or doing something else other than Pharmacy, they have to go all out. It keeps you fit. Choosing to do nothing because you have retired is a bad habit that spells doom.
I have always been very active in church work. I faced church work fully after retirement and am still doing it, although not as much as I want. I still give talks once in a while, so that I can exercise my body and my brain.