Commentary #2.5 (of 28): PLAYING WITH THE DEAD


Every so often (weekly at the moment), I’ll be writing a commentary about a story from EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. Actually, in this case, this story does not appear in the book. But hey, it’s FREE! I’ll tackle the stories in the order they appear in the book. Given the nature of this exercise, I cannot guarantee that I won’t spoil specific details from the story. So you may want to return to the commentaries here when you’ve finished reading the book. If I don’t address an aspect of the story you were interested in, by all means leave a question at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.


In case you missed it, you can read “Playing With the Dead” here.

If you were placing this story chronologically in Empty Rooms Lonely Countries, it would end up between “Little Conundrums” and “The Illusion of Swing”. I had been living with Spryte for about six months and I will still finding my way with my friendship with Dr. Patel.

This would be one of two pharmacy stories I would write, along with “On Love, Mediocrity and Prescription Drugs”. Both stories were written for publication in a pharmacy magazine, and both were rejected very quickly.

If you want to change your life a little bit, do what I did in the story. In 1997, I started a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, and when I wrote my name down, I added a Dr. before my name as there was space for it. The first issue of EW I received with Dr. Christian A. Dumais on the label was hilarious. I remember showing it to Spryte and we had a good laugh. Even my parents thought it was good. Within a few months, most of the junk mail I got was for the doctor version of me. Still funny. I started to receive subscription offers with some serious discounts for my waiting room. Still kind of funny. I got certificates from local bagel shops for free bagels for my staff. Now it was beginning to be a little worrisome. About one year after I officially graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in English (Creative Writing), I received an invitation to be a possible presenter at a medical conference hosted by the University of South Florida. By that time, I was working in City Style magazine, and Derrek the editor was practically begging me to do it and write a story.

I never wrote Dr. Christian A. Dumais on anything again, but I would continue to get mail for him up until the time I moved to Poland.

Now, the drug dinner we were attending was at a steakhouse in South Tampa. A large part of it was reserved by the pharmaceutical company, and the drinks and food were free. There was a 60 minute lecture about the company’s newest drug. It was known that many insurance companies were going to stop paying for the competitor’s drug, so when that happened, the pharmacy would have to call the doctor’s office for a substitute, and it would be wonderful if the pharmacist could recommend this new drug.

This would be the fourth and last of the drug dinners I attended. The previous one was at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. This was by far the best and most frightening of all the ones I went to. The atmosphere was festive, there was an open bar, and the drug representatives were really, really intense. It felt like the kind of presentation where a lot of jobs were on the line. In the bathroom, drugs reps were giving themselves pep talks in front of the mirror before breaking down into tears. Because of two pharmacists I had worked with, they managed to put get me on the guest list. It wasn’t until I arrived that I learned I was a pharmacist. The entire presentation earned me 12 continuing education credit hours.

I met Dr. Patel at the dinner in the story. He was the one who told me I should come. As you can probably tell, if you act like you’re supposed to be there, it’s easy to crash one of these events.

A lot of the dialogue in the story is inflated for comedic effect, but it wasn’t uncommon for the smaller chain pharmacists to balk at the numbers we were doing at the bigger chains. To put this in perspective, Chain X is one of the largest drug stores in Florida, with pharmacies at almost every corner. One particular five mile radius had about 6 stores. Each of the pharmacies is averaging between 800 to 1000 prescriptions a day. If the pharmacist is lucky, he/she has two technicians helping to type up the scripts into the computer, and maybe even counting out the pills. Maybe there is a cashier, but in many cases the technician acts as one. The technician might have to man the drive-thru if there is one. Despite what roles the technician performs, everything that goes down is the pharmacist’s responsibility. The phone is constantly ringing with refills from customers and new prescriptions from doctors, the drive-thru window is beeping, and there is a line at the cash register and at the consultation window. If the pharmacist is lucky, he/she might have a few minutes at the end of the day to have a snack during the 12 hour shift, one which is perhaps the fifth or sixth one in a row. A world of distractions…and yet, we expect the pharmacist to accurately inspect and fill over 800 prescriptions by his or herself. Any mistake that gets through better be small (29 pills instead of 30, or a typo in the amount of possible refills), and if it’s not, hope that the person doesn’t die. And the patient must have the prescription NOW! How long does it take to count some pills, right?

Every week or so, a drug rep will appear at the pharmacy with a suitcase full of gifts. The drug rep maybe has a college education. It doesn’t really matter, because he/she was sent to a weekly seminar where he/she lived and breathed the drug they are representing. They know everything about the drug. Get them off the subject, they will return to what they know from an infinite list of scripted segues. Once they feel they have the pharmacies on board with ordering the medication (why wouldn’t they with all the cool free stuff with the drugs name written all over it?), they will meet with the local doctors. They will give them free stuff too, but they will have better incentives. Tell you what, you write more than a thousand prescriptions of this medication by the end of the year, I’ll have a new Mercedes waiting for you in the parking lot come Christmas. And suddenly, everyone needs this medication, according to their doctor. The pharmacies already have it in stock and are ready to give them to you. If the drug rep did his job, he will make six figures.

Everyone is happy.

The drug dinners happen when the drug company feels that they aren’t reaching out as well as they should be. There is a high likelihood that the dinner is being funded by a drug rep from his/her own pocket, because the end of the year is approaching and the numbers are looking bleak.

The pharmacists go for the free food and drinks. They’ll listen. Some will even take notes. Some might even care. Mostly though, it’s an opportunity to meet up with some friends and trade stories. Because doctors sometime show up, it’s a great way to finally put a face to the person you’ve talked to on the phone.

It’s a game.

A stupid, awful game.

But hey, free drinks!

All the stories in “Playing With the Dead” are true and came from a lot of different pharmacists I knew at the time, as well as the cynicism.

Next week: “Before Waking” (I mean it this time!)

Previous commentaries:

#1 “Cowboys and Indians”
#2 “Little Conundrums”
#3 “The Illusion of Swing”
#4 “Kicking Love’s Ass”
#5 “On Being Velma-less”
#6 “Muted Porn”
#7 “Defying Gravity”
#8 “The Fifth Ocean”
#9 “One Dead (Potted) Plant”
#10 “Remembering Drajra”
#11 “Pancakes, Wishes and Other Tales”
#12 “Maintaining”