Once inside the Clinic building, the misery continues. The pharmacy is located just inside the entrance. It’s ground zero for another crucial aspect of the health care crisis: the price of medicine.

The pharmacy is full of hostages to the pharmaceutical industry. Refugees of the drug war.  

Everyday I scurry past the hostages and refugees to get to my office on the second floor. They are clumped together in a tiny waiting area, sitting on long, hard benches or standing and pacing anxiously and above all waiting, waiting, waiting  and waiting for the medicine that allows them to function like normal human beings. That allows them to be “compliant” with doctors prescriptive orders. To keep the sugar between 70 and 100, the good cholesterol good and the bad good, blood pressure low, voices in the head tolerable, virus undetectable, heart ticking, pulse clicking and pain bearable.

Pandemonium punctuated by an automated voice in English and Spanish call out numbers: “Attendiendo cliente numero 233.” If  your number is flashing in bright red on the small black screen you’ve won the medication lottery. A brown paper bag full of plastic bottles of pills is the prize. Hallelujah, thank you drug lord Jesus! 

The hostages and refugees come from every corner of the globe. There are tall, proud Mexican campesinos with gold teeth wearing scruffy cowboy boots and sombreros made of straw standing next to diminutive Indian women in diaphanous, swirling saris – wrists completely encircled with gold bracelets. African women’s heads are swathed in colorful cloth and women from the Middle East don black hijabs. Along side them are indigenous prisoners of big PhRMA, some of the poorest people in Cook County, USA: Black and white, whose lives and clothes are hand-to-mouth and second-hand.

The procurement of a month’s worth of medication is a harrowing, error-prone, daylong proposition. A machine dispenses numbers like the deli counter in a grocery store that patients must get in order to simply drop off a prescription. To pick it up another number has to be secured. The waits are legendary and can rival the ER. Patients inhabit the rows of benches across from the pharmacy windows where  pharm techs can be seen briskly dispensing precious pills and liquids. Hundreds of eyes and ears are trained on seeing and hearing the magic number. Shit out of luck if you fall asleep, aren’t paying attention or are confused and your number calls and blinks and you miss it.    

Medicine is a gift and there are no guarantees.

Arguments and anger at the dispensing windows. Signs are posted proclaiming  rudeness to staff will not be tolerated and ejection from the pharmacy will result. One day a furious and feisty old woman leaning on a cane was throwing down on two burly, armed police officers. She wouldn’t move away from the cashier’s window until the pharmacy manager was called. 

Patients plead and beg staff to give them their medicine. Prescription snafus (usually the fault of doctors) or lack of co-pays, trigger yet more rage and belligerence – on both sides of the glass window.

Because hell hath no fury like a patient in need of medication.

Drug company profits are astounding and depend on the desperate desperation and daily pandemonium at the Pharmacy where there is an astounding dearth of dignity and enough unnecessary pain and suffering to fill an ocean – or two.