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Interview: Martin Bennett


Interview: Martin Bennett

Martin Bennett has pretty much seen it all during his half century at Wicker Pharmacy in Sheffield. Neil Trainis caught up with him…

If the dictionary used images instead of written definitions to illustrate the meaning of words, you would probably find a picture of Martin Bennett under ‘community pharmacist.’

That’s because it’s hard to think of a pharmacist who has experienced as much as he has over such a long period of time, although there are doubtless other candidates out there. As he reflects on the 50 years he spent at Wicker Pharmacy in Sheffield as its superintendent pharmacist, a role he stepped down from last year so he could spend more time with his grandchildren, travel and use his "motorhome more,” Martin, who's 76 but still full of energy, recounts some of the events that have defined his long career humbly and, at times, with humour.

There have been dramatic moments, inspiring moments, funny moments, interesting moments. There have been moments that make you wonder how on earth Wicker Pharmacy, which proudly states it has been open every day since it started in 1952, can keep going without him overseeing operations, even though he stresses he will carry on working three days a week under Wicker’s new superintendent Laura Willey, who joined from a company where she helped deliver healthcare to people in prison.

As we talk about Martin’s first day at Wicker in 1973, which he remembers as clearly as if it was last week – using log tables to work out percentages and gross profit, carbon paper to make copies of things and he was put in the “awkward position” of having to tell a locum she wasn’t needed when she came into the pharmacy – our conversation drifts back even further to 1969.

He had left university and was still to start his pre-reg but that year, he took part in the Commonwealth Expedition, also known as Comex, a series of coach trips by young people, mostly students, from across the UK to India in the 1960s and 1970s which were designed to enlighten them about Commonwealth ideals.

Participating in Comex 3, the first two versions having taken place in 1965 and 1967, Martin took a turn driving a coach from Sheffield to the Indian subcontinent via a long, winding route through a variety of European and Middle Eastern cities. They set off in July ’69 and returned in October. Legend has it former Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow was on Comex 3 with Martin, whose group stopped off in different cities to sample the culture, stage concerts and put on theatrical performances.

“There were 500 people on 20 coaches and I was one of the drivers. The Yorkshire contingent it was,” he recounts. “We put on concerts and did all sorts of things. We had a festival in New Delhi. That was a great experience. I probably learnt more from that than my three years at university. You had to learn to live together and get on and everybody got to do various tasks to get us from Sheffield to India and back.

“We went through Europe and Yugoslavia at it was then, into Greece, Turkey then Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. There was a big Commonwealth youth festival held in Delhi. There was 500 of us and 500 students from universities in India came and it was televised. It was quite an experience really.

“Istanbul was worth going to. Iran was very hospitable. They had a big stadium. It was the Shah in those days. In Pakistan, in Lahore, we stayed where they had the Test match on the cricket pitch. It was a very interesting journey. I learnt a lot.”


Trips disrupted by war and tragedy

Martin was not part of Comex 1 and Comex 2 but remembers one was disrupted by war, the other by a different tragedy. “The first trip started and then a war broke out between Pakistan and India and so they had to sell the coaches and then fly back because they couldn’t drive back. Comex 2 went two years before us in 1967 and they had a disaster.

“Coming back through Yugoslavia, a crane coming towards them on the road went straight through the side of the coach and 14 students on board were killed. The incident was one reason they wanted Comex 3 to be bigger and better but the most important thing was getting there and back safely.”

Not that his trip was incident-free. Martin recalls the coach he was driving in Turkey was struck by a large rock that tumbled down a hillside and on to the road, although nobody was hurt. He has vivid memories of his group’s activities in far-flung cities. “We would set up camp and were invited to what they called ‘youth palaces’ and put on various shows. We would do Shakespeare. When we were in Delhi, we put on concerts every night.”

The trip prepared Martin for a career in pharmacy because it taught him to find solutions to problems as part of a team. “I learned that you’ve got to get people to co-operate and work together and be very inclusive so that everybody knew what was going on.” Their immediate challenge was to raise money for the trip which he insists put his group “under a lot of pressure.”

“We didn’t get started until January (1969) and we were going off in July and we had to get enough money to fund it. And when it came to the time to go, we’d probably got half of the money. So, we had to start looking at what we could cut back on. We couldn’t cut back on diesel. The only thing we could cut back on was food, so in the end, we finished up with £1 a day to live on (each) for 25 people.” Smiling, he muses “it was quite good for losing weight. I lost about two stone. We all moaned but we managed okay.”

Those experiences benefitted Martin during his long career in pharmacy but only up to a point. It seems nothing could have prepared him for some of the things he had to deal with at Wicker, incidents that required quick-thinking and raw instinct. Things pre-reg assessments cannot teach. “Never a dull moment here,” he says with a tinge of humour.


Flood-hit pharmacy had to be evacuated

The most dramatic moment, he insists, came in 2007 when his pharmacy’s staff had to be evacuated by boat after floods hit large parts of the UK including Sheffield. “I was on holiday at the time in Cornwall and got the phone call saying ‘the pharmacy’s flooded.’ It was about three in the afternoon. I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, I’d been there for years and years.

“So straightaway, I was in the motorcaravan and drove straight back. We got back by about midnight. We had five or six staff who couldn’t get back to their house because the city at the time was split in half by this river. The staff on duty had to be rescued by boat and quite a few of them came back to our house and stayed the night there.

“At six o’clock the next morning, we went into the pharmacy to assess the damage and by that time, strangely enough, the water had dropped down and it was just thick mud and a fish that was left in the dispensary.

“We got part of the pharmacy open by nine o’clock that morning. We’d already got a stand-by generator and various things. The fire brigade were very good, they helped out and we were under way. It was a massive problem to sort it all out.”

There have been other dramatic incidents. According to Yorkshire Live, Martin once defibrillated a patient who it was feared had suffered a cardiac arrest and saved a man’s life after he went into anaphylactic shock. “I was there for one chap who thought he had suffered a cardiac arrest. We put the defibrillator on him. I don’t think he had a cardiac arrest but we went through the process and the ambulance people arrived and they took over and left him on the defibrillator and brought him round.

“The (anaphylactic shock incident) wasn’t in person, it was a phone call. Somebody phoned up and said ‘oh, my husband suffered from this reaction’ and I said ‘well, is he allergic to anything?’ We went through some questions.

“As far as she knew, it was nothing he was allergic to. It just sounded like an anaphylactic reaction. I said ‘look, we’ve got to do something about it quickly. Are you near a surgery?’ She said ‘no.’ So I said ‘I think you’d better dial 999. Do it now.’ Most times, you never hear another word but they actually got back and said ‘thank you very much.’

“The ambulance came and took him to hospital and a chap at the hospital said if we hadn’t spoken to (his wife), he’d probably be dead.”


Homeless man set on fire, another man thrown in river

I had also read somewhere that Martin used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames on someone who had staggered into his pharmacy. The man, who was homeless and sleeping rough, had been set upon by thugs.

“What apparently happened was there was a gang of youths who were going past and they decided to set him on fire. They set fire to part of him. He got up and, I think originally, it was just smouldering but by the time he got to us, the flames had started. People were trying to help him in the pharmacy because he was on fire. We managed to put the fire out with the fire extinguisher.”

Martin then recalls that just a week earlier, another man had stumbled into his pharmacy soaked to the bone having been thrown into a canal. “The canal is not that close to the pharmacy. There’s a river in between, then there’s a canal and hotels and various other things, but somehow, he staggered to us. He was in a bit of a mess. We had to get the police because he had been pushed in intentionally. It was an interesting time, that couple of weeks.” Martin makes it sound like Wicker was an emergency rescue hub for victims of assault as well as a community pharmacy.

In August last year, his staff saved the lives of two patients who had overdosed in the space of a week just days after his team had attended training sessions on administering naloxone. “Whether we saved their lives or not, I’m not so sure,” Martin says modestly.

“I suppose if we hadn’t done the training, what would’ve happened? We dialled 999 but we wouldn’t have been able to do the naloxone until they turned up. It helped us quite a bit. We were able to act immediately.”


He pushed a broken bottle up to my neck

The next incident to enter his mind, however, was one that raised the stakes considerably for him personally. As he was opening the pharmacy one morning, he was confronted by a man who tried to force his way inside before pushing a broken bottle against Martin’s throat. The memory has stayed with him.

“It just after a Boxing Day, which was on a Friday. This was a Saturday. It was about half seven, quarter to eight when I got there. I went into the pharmacy, turned the alarm off, and I was closing the door behind me and some guy came and tried to pull the door back. He gave me a funny look. I said ‘we’re not open yet. I’ll get back to you.’ He pulled a broken bottle from his pocket and pushed it up to my neck.

“He didn’t actually say anything. So, I said ‘oh, well, we’ll make an exception.’ So, I opened the door for him to come in. He came straight in, went straight past me and I went straight back out and locked the door. So, he was locked in the pharmacy and I was on the outside.

I phoned the police and waited for them to turn up. I told them what happened and I went round the corner because I didn’t want to antagonise him. Eventually, the police went into the pharmacy and he was in the middle of the shop, facing the door, sitting on the seat, just staring at the door. I thought he’d be ransacking all the drugs.

“The police went in, about four or five of them, and they told him ‘put that bottle down.’ And he got up with the bottle and started coming towards them, so they shot him with one of these spray guns. He fell on the floor with his eyes watering and the police all jumped on top of him and they all had their eyes watering because they were inhaling the same stuff. One of them landed on the bottle and cut his hand, so it was an absolute farce. But they got him up and arrested him.”

The man pleaded guilty in court and was ordered to pay Martin £200, which he did. The incident illustrated not only Martin’s mental alertness but coolness under severe pressure. After all, if he had tried to grab the bottle, his attacker may have inflicted a life-threatening injury.

Maintaining composure and thinking clearly in serious situations are hallmarks of great pharmacists. Martin is principled too. Angered by the Conservative’s treatment of pharmacy, he turned down NHS England’s invitation last year to attend the NHS’s 75th-anniversary party, sardonically suggesting he was “washing” his hair.


Employee-ownership model grabbed him

In the “official story” of Wicker Pharmacy, as Martin describes it, Associated Chemists (Wicker) Ltd started in 1951 after two pharmacists decided to address a lack of late night and out-of-hours pharmacy services in Sheffield. They convinced 45 independent pharmacists in the city to chip in with money to buy a property at 61 Wicker and convert it into a pharmacy.

Martin offers up the “unofficial” version. “After the start of the NHS, within a few years, one of the rules was that when you closed, you had to put a sign in your window saying you were still open, that the pharmacy was still available as part of the terms of service. Boots decided their city centre store in Sheffield would remain open until 10pm, so all the independents put a sign in their windows saying ‘when we’re closed, go to Boots.’ And the independents objected to this.

“They said ‘we don’t want to be advertising our opposition.’ Suddenly, everybody was united. Here was an opportunity to produce their own city centre late night pharmacy and they didn’t have to advertise Boots. They called a meeting and 45 of them all agreed to put money in.”

By the time the pharmacy opened on January 27, 1952, all those pharmacists owned a share of the business. Wicker’s website claims it was “the first example of a consortium-owned pharmacy” and Martin says others popped up over the next decade in Leeds, Stockport, Birkenhead, Newcastle and Birmingham.

However, Wicker’s ownership model changed. In 2012, some of it was transferred to its staff through an employee ownership trust model. At one point, current or past employees collectively owned over 75 per cent of the business. Martin insists it’s now “probably at least 95 per cent.”

“We’ve still got 31 shareholders, most of them are elderly. We’re moving towards it being fully employee-owned,” he says. It was employee-owned companies in other industries that piqued his interest and he visited a few.

“My best friend’s mother worked for a John Lewis branch. They’ve got a country club near Windsor. They’re fantastic places and they’re subsidised by their employees and she used to get this annual profit share bonus.

“My relatives worked in the steelworks in Sheffield. People who worked there helped subsidise holidays, various other things. But in Sheffield, there is quite a lot of employee-owned companies. Just down the road from us, there’s a place called Grip which makes little devices connecting wires together. Their model is every employee has to buy at least £2,000 of shares of the company.

“There’s another company in Sheffield called Swann-Morton who make scalpel blades. Everybody there only works a four-day week, they get extra holidays, they help finance your children to go to university, there’s all sorts of fringe benefits associated with them as an employee-owned company. I thought ‘it would be great to have a pharmacy like that, so all the staff who work there benefit.’”

A constant search for amelioration has characterised Martin’s career. He insists “in virtually everything, there’s a better way of doing things” and that burning curiosity prompted him to see how pharmacies in other parts of the world operate.

“I spent time in a pharmacy in Afghanistan and India, looking at what they do. In the Afghanistan one, they’ve got a really interesting consultation room which they had in 1969, well before anything like that here.”

Despite the hardships pharmacies in England continue to endure, he is sure these are exciting times. “Things are changing and there’s a lot of opportunity for pharmacy. I don’t know if I’m getting out at a good time. People always say that. In some ways, I’m quite envious at the opportunities that are coming along.

“It’s also a big change that’s coming our way. We’re still struggling to move pharmacists away from the checking mode and that’s got to happen to give the time necessary for Pharmacy First and the like.”

The prospect of Pharmacy First in England, finally delivered by the Tories after years of campaigning by community pharmacy, has been greeted with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. There is pressure on the sector to ensure the scheme is a success because of the faith ministers have finally put in pharmacies but at the same time, the sobering reality that independents could struggle because of a lack of resources and funding is impossible to shake off.


Banks were pleased to loan money but that’s changed

Help has not been easy to come by. Banks make it their business to know the minutiae of a pharmacy’s finances and their projected earnings and securing a loan from them has reportedly been tricky for some pharmacists. That may, in part, be because bank managers don’t understand the intricacies of running a pharmacy business.

Martin says the attitude of banks towards community pharmacies has changed for the worse. “Going back 10, 15 years, the ability to be able to get bank loans in pharmacy was simplicity itself. Banks were pleased to loan money. Now, that’s changed.

“At the end of the day, we’re down to ‘can we get the finance to be able to do what we want to do?’ We’ve got difficult decisions to make about how much space in the pharmacy we need. Can we manage with significantly less space which would save us a lot of money? At the moment, it’s quite difficult to know.

“We can see there’s going to be more and more of this hub-and-spoke type of situation where we say ‘we’ll dispense all your easy prescriptions and send them directly to you.’ And I can see that’s going to have implications. Perhaps you won’t need as much space. But you will need space where you can put consultation rooms because one of the down sides is, and it’s okay having all these great ideas like Pharmacy First, but if you really wanted to make a big impact and take workload away from GPs, then a typical pharmacy that has one small consultation room will not make a massive difference.”

Martin believes the average community pharmacy will need to have two or even three consultation rooms if it is to roll out Pharmacy First and other services. Pharmacists will also need to expand their teams to meet patient demand.

“You might have two technicians working in one of the consultation rooms and you’ll still be deploying medication that’s being dispensed elsewhere. There’s a need to consider what I call the pharmacy estate.”

Wicker Pharmacy’s longevity suggests it is very well run and prepared for the tough months and years ahead. Martin has no concerns about its ability to stay open.

“We’ve been very good at dealing with the negatives and taking on extra services outside of the contract. That has been the key to us being able to continue and as long as we can continue to provide those services well, I think we’ll be okay.”

He has some advice for pharmacists who have bought, or are considering buying, their first pharmacy; make your team feel valued and keep an eye out for innovations elsewhere that might improve your pharmacy.

“Look after your staff. The patients are first but you’ve got to have the right ethos for the staff to work well in. Then, look at everything else that’s going on and think ‘is there any way that can be applied in the pharmacy?’

“Going back to the old days, 1978 I think it was, there was a guy in Harpenden who came up with the idea of connecting a computer to a labeller and produce a dispensing label. He came up with the idea because there were no little labels.

“Eventually, he found a labeller that was being used by a petrol station that was printing some receipts and he managed to connect that up to what was then called a PET computer which had 80k of memory.

“I drove down to Harpenden one Saturday morning and he showed me this computer and he typed ‘one to…’ and it came up on the label ‘one to be taken three times a day’ with this little printer. It was a brilliant idea.”

It’s been quite a journey. Fifty years of hard toil and great reward. Thanks for the memories Martin.


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