A Refill to Remember

Getting my refill at the pharmacy counter can be a real adventure, if I even remember I have one.

by John Michael Cummings

I’m at the pharmacy counter, and the young tech with purple hair points at a big plastic bin behind her. It’s filled with ready-for-pickup prescriptions.

Which refill, when? Photo: MorgueFile, CC BY-SA 3.0.

“And those”—she does a comical Vanna White move with her arm—“go back on the shelves!”

I peer over the counter at dozens upon dozens of prescription bags. Each is a flourish of work—a narrow white paper pharmacy bag, folded along the serrated top edge and stapled with instructions, a tidy, ready arrangement, as if from a gift shop.



Hundreds of medications are filled daily, but a third of them are never picked up, she informs me. Customers can’t afford them, don’t want them, or forget them.

I feel my brow wrinkle. Hmm, seventies inflation again.

“Yep”—she turns back to her computer diagonally across the counter from me—“does wonders for my morale, too.” Then she pastes on a smile for me. “Whatcha need, hon?”

Trinity, as her name badge reads, and I are buds. Her father’s name’s the same as mine. I’m Catholic, so her name is sacrilege to me. But she makes up for it with her colorful yarn hair, superman glasses, and offbeat manner.

Get this. She’s helped me a grand total of one time before. Welcome to my meta life.

I lean over the counter a bit so she can hear me above the chatter of customers around us.

“Starts with ‘c-e-f…’”

I immediately look away, trying to recall the jungle of consonants that follow.

This spelling bee at the pharmacy happens every time. I’m on my lunch hour, and the RX number is on the pill bottle at home.

So what do I do next? I promptly complicate the search by adding that it might begin with “c-i-p-h” or “c-h-l-y something.”

Her eyes flip up from her screen.

“Wait, what’s it for, hon?”

I whisper what it’s for—a very specific problem for older men—putting trust in her smart, young eyes for seamless professional expression.

“Not cefuroxime. You just got that filled Monday.” She scoots her stool closer to her screen. “…cefazolin?”

I appreciate her fluency with all the -cycline’s, -zepam’s, and -azole’s in pharmacopoeia. But I can’t recognize my own medications when said properly.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been uttering pidgin pharma. I’ve garbled my way through whoppers like “ustekinumab.” More than once, with the help of a sweaty COVID mask, I’ve said “perskipshum.”

I have degrees on my wall at home. I play Scrabble, for crying out loud. Why don’t I slow down to remember the spellings of chemicals keeping me healthy?

In the meantime, I smartly apologize to my bud for the inconvenience.

“No, you’re good.”

Good? I have arthritis and hypertension, plus suburbia-grade depression. My med list runs 14 deep.

Pain relievers I take as needed, and those are stockpiling at home. Antidepressants I rotate like crops, to prevent drug tolerance. Antibiotics I’ve lost track of. They linger on my chart as digital deadweight.

“There’s chlor…phenir-amine?” even my pharmacy tech struggles to say.

“No, not that one”—I lean closer to her in expectation—”but are there any refills left?”

She nods. “Wanna get one while you’re here?”

I return the nod.

“Carvedilol…that has two refills left. Fill that, too?”

Why do I suddenly feel I’m in McDonald’s, saying yes to a Double Big Mac?

Meanwhile, registers on both sides of me are tied up in transactions, and the counter space serves as a work area, holding cell phones, purses, keys. Swipe cards of every kind, touchpad electronic signature—our digitalized economy is thriving.

Behind me, the line to the pharmacy stretches back into hardware. Sour-looking customers wait one after another, arms crossed and hips cocked, their faces awash with morbid expressions of impatience.

Dead ahead, four pharmacists stand abreast behind a high counter, all wearing bright-white lab coats, keeping perfect posture, and engrossed in their console screens and pill-work before them.

Shelves, rising high around them, are chocked full of goodies. A sizable clear bin on the floor glows with empty, unlabeled, trademark see-through, orange pill bottles, ready for business.

America’s not running on Dunkin’s, but pill-binding powder, gelatin capsules, and various synthetic darlings that make us glow in the dark.

Right now, I’m happily adding to my order at window 2. This is a sale, and I’m fat with privilege, thanks to health insurance.

“Oh”—Trinity clicks her mouse, then looks directly at me—”do you want to enroll into our auto-refill program?”

It’s self-explanatory. Meds are refilled automatically on the eligible date. No more standing in line at the pharmacy, no more phoning in refills.

With a click of her mouse, off we go for enrollment, and with another click, to a stop we come.

“Uh-ohhh!” she lets out, her mouth narrowing into a ringlet of horror. “The med you were looking for—cilostazol…” She tilts her head and fits me with a disappointed look. “You actually had a refill waiting.”

My eyes fall. I know the rest. Back to the shelves. Restocked.

“Busted!” she absolutely positively must add.

A wave of embarrassment hits me. I am one of the careless one-third, the one in three who is unmindful and inconsiderate, the pharmacy’s deplorable minority who doubles work for staff.

How did this happen? Did I miss a text reminder?

I launch into a stagey apology that Trinity cuts short with another you’re good, hon. A few taps of the keys later, and “There! All set,” she finishes brightly.

All 14 of my medications are now set to refill automatically.

“Great,” I say, my smile slanting off my face.

Now I have 14 regularly occurring opportunities to fail to remember to pick up my medications, instead of having to stand in line and try to remember how to spell them.

I think my lunch hour is over.

John Michael Cummings is the author of “The Spirit In My Shoes.”

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