17 October 2023

Woonona pharmacy rises from the ashes to reopen front doors and welcome daylight

| Jen White
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two people behind pharmacy counter

Owner and pharmacist Michael Goodman with retail manager Julia Crago at the reopened Amcal Plus Pharmacy. Photo: Region Illawarra.

Ten months after fire severely damaged Woonona’s Amcal Plus Pharmacy, the front doors have finally reopened, much to the relief of owner Michael Goodman.

Staff worked around builders while restocking shelves and welcoming customers back on Monday morning (16 October). They were even pleased to hear the sound of Princes Highway traffic after months of working in a “cave” at the rear of the building.

The blaze on 21 December last year caused extensive damage to the store, particularly the retail area at the front, and destroyed neighbouring eateries, the Grumpy Chef Cafe and Royal Thai.

Michael and his staff were determined not to let the fire put them out of business or let their customers down. All of the pharmacy’s medical stock had to be destroyed under strict guidelines but Michael’s customers still needed their medications.

For a few days, they dispensed prescriptions out of the Priceline pharmacy across the highway.

“We were able to get the server out, which had all the data on it so all the scripts were there. We were lucky that not everything went up in smoke,” Michael said.

“The day of the fire, we had nowhere to go, but people needed their Webster packs, we had their weekly medications or their repeat prescriptions that we keep on file.”

Fire damage in a pharmacy

Fire extensively damaged the pharmacy on 21 December last year. Photo: Supplied.

At one stage, Michael and his staff were serving customers from a marquee in the rear car park, as builders were completing work on a dispensing area inside.

“We’ve actually been quite busy. I had just been praying insurance kept us going and then hoping for the best that we didn’t lose everybody by the end of the year,” Michael said.

“But fortunately, we’ve had our core group of customers who have stuck with us. It’s a long time to ask them to do that – not that we asked them – but they’ve stayed with us.”

Michael, who’s operated the pharmacy since 2007, said there had been lots of ups and downs since the fire, but his family, customers and the community had thrown their support behind him. And he was able to keep all of his 20 staff employed.

READ ALSO Why our firefighters deserve all the bells and whistles – and sirens

He and his three children found some gems trawling through op shops looking for artwork to brighten up the waiting area “cave”, including a painting of Woonona with the escarpment in the background and a chemist on the corner.

As if he hasn’t been busy enough getting the pharmacy back in shape, Michael is also finishing a law degree.

“I’ve wanted another challenge,” he said.

“I started it out of frustration – there were a couple of disputes and I guess the proactive advice wasn’t really there – so I thought, well, I’d actually been interested in doing law before I went into pharmacy.

Pharmacy staff filling prescriptions

The pharmacy staff are thrilled to be getting back to normal conditions. Photo: Region Illawarra.

“It’s not an easy degree and the work will be quite challenging as well, but it’s exciting. It’s entirely different and engages a different part of the brain.”

While Michael is not planning to leave the pharmacy, he is looking for ways to ease the workload and overcome the issue of attracting skilled pharmacists to share the work.

Dispensing an average of 400 prescriptions daily was a large workload when there was only one pharmacist on duty, he said.

READ ALSO Work starts on Helensburgh health hub’s $4.3m transformation to state-of-the-art community space

One addition to the new pharmacy will be a dispensing “robot” machine. Popular in hospitals and larger pharmacies, the digital drug-dispensing machine is designed to automate the tasks of dispensing pills, searching for medication and managing stock levels.

Along with the staff, Michael’s customers have been thrilled that the pharmacy’s front doors are again open.

“They think it’s incredible – they’ve been saying, ‘Wow, you can see daylight!’ We’ve been living in a cave with no natural light at all, so with the front door open, we can actually be part of the street again.”

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