Glen Sisak and Zenia Winnicki behind their Family Health Pharmacy counter last week. VOICE PHOTO

Glen Sisak and Zenia Winnicki left Shoppers and haven’t looked back

A few weeks ago, one of the new Family Health Pharmacy’s regular customers, Bill, came in with a gift for pharmacist Glen Sisak. Sisak was for many years on staff at Shoppers Drug Mart in Fonthill, until he and his partner, Zenia Winnicki, opened Family Health in August. He had known Bill for some time.

Working long hours at the new pharmacy meant that Sisak hadn’t made it to the barber, and Bill took notice.

“I just can’t get used to your hair,” Bill said. “So I brought you something.”

Sisak said Bill pulled out his wallet and produced a $4.99 coupon from the chain haircutting salon that had opened opposite the pharmacy in the new East Fonthill shopping plaza.

“For him to plan ahead and keep that coupon for me—that’s really something,” said Sisak last week. Sisak went in for the haircut, but was worried that by the time Bill returned to the pharmacy it would have all grown back.

“I hope he comes back soon. I don’t know what he’s going to do if I have long hair again. He’ll probably give me the five bucks.” Sisak laughed.

“Anyway. It’s good to know that people are worried about me.”

Opening Family Health may have meant forgoing his coiffing, but Sisak insisted that the first three months have been enjoyable.

“We’re above our expectations, once we learned how to have real expectations,” he said, turning to Winnicki. “What did Lou from Niagara Street say? ‘Whatever your worse projection is, halve it’?”

Winnicki nodded, and Sisak laughed again.

“That’s it,” he said. “We’re above half of our worst projection.”

Sisak, 54, speaks in low, quiet tones that are almost inaudible at times, but when he laughs, as he does with greater frequency the longer a conversation goes, his voice grows louder.

Winnicki looks a decade younger than her 44 years.

“Not me,” said Sisak. “I look exactly as old as I am.”

While it’s true that Sisak’s hair—$4.99 trimmed, though getting longer—is mostly gray, he carries himself with the airs of a younger man. After 15 years at Shoppers, it took some audacity for Sisak and Winnicki to strike out on their own.

“Maybe it would be more stressful if it were my money,” he said, and this time Winnicki laughed too. (Sisak and Winnicki do not own the pharmacy.)

“Well,” she said. “You’re motivated to keep working so that you still have a job.”

“That’s true. Maybe at some point we’ll be able to hire some help and take a day off—or a vacation,” Sisak said.

For now, it’s just the two of them working six days a week, though both say that the size of the operation is what excited them most. Winnicki, a pharmacy technician, worked for Shoppers for two decades, and both she and Sisak liked the idea of a smaller shop that can better focus on prescriptions and medicine.

“In all my time at Shoppers, I found that I was only really advising people to go to two aisles,” said Sisak. “And there are some people who come in our door here and don’t even make it past the vestibule. ‘Oh,’ they’ll say. ‘I thought this was a real pharmacy.’”

Despite its small size—the “floor” is barely bigger than a half-dozen vestibules—Sisak says that they generally have what customers are looking for.

“They’ll come in and say, ‘You probably don’t have this,’ and I’ll challenge them and see. And ninety percent of the time we do,” he said.

“That’s thanks to all the crazy things that I made you buy,” said Winnicki.

“True,” said Sisak. “A while back someone came and bought all of our dental wax, which costs $2.49. He said that he had been looking all over for it, and that we’re the only ones who stocked it. We started out just ordering things ‘recommended by Glen,’ and then ‘Glen’ realized that he might not always know what people want.”

“Right,” said Winnicki. “And there are those other things that people just want because they want them.” Sisak struggled to find an example.

“Pepto Bismol would be one of those,” he said. “I don’t think that it really does much of anything. It’s harmless, but it’s marketed for all of those things—”

“I could do the little dance,” said Winnicki.

“Nausea, heartburn, diarrhea…I’d really recommend a Gravol for nausea, and an Imodium for diarrhea. But some people swear by it, so we have it,” said Sisak. He thought back to instances during the store’s first three months when someone had bought something obscure.

“An older man came in to buy iodine to clean out a cut. Not something that’s often used now.”

Over a month after the arrival of the flu vaccination, Sisak says that the first wave of adopters has dwindled—that the people who get vaccinated early have already suffered the flu before and don’t want to risk getting it again.

“Now it’ll be those who say, ‘Everyone around me is sick: I need the vaccine!’ That’s all right. We’ll still give it to them.”

Sisak and Winnicki have programmed the cash register to display, “Flu Shot Available Now.” The messaging serves as a conversation starter for Sisak, who says that while some people remain skeptical of the vaccination’s merits, most people don’t know just how bad the flu can be.

“Most people who think they’ve had the flu, haven’t,” he said. “They’ve had a cold.”

The flu and cold viruses have similar symptoms, but influenza is invariably more severe and can last for up to three weeks, and can kill you, a point that Sisak tries to communicate with anyone expressing skepticism.

These longer conversations are one of the primary reasons that Sisak and Winnicki were attracted to the new pharmacy.

“We can do more with less,” says Winnicki. “We’re trying to find a better way to practise.”

Both Sisak and Winnicki seem to have enjoyed their time working for Shoppers—they worked there for a combined 35 years, after all—but both do seem pleased to be free from corporate restrictions.

“There are guidelines about a lot of things,” says Sisak, from the location of products on shelves to the staffing of the store. “It’s a little bit intimidating, thinking that we have to compete with the big drug stores. But we’re not trying to be a Shoppers Drug Mart, and we’re never going to be. Part of that is because we’re right beside Food Basics. We purposefully don’t sell toilet paper or things like that. So if anyone comes in and asks, ‘Where’s the tonic water on sale?’…we won’t have it. Food Basics is that way.”

At the final conference Sisak attended when he still worked for Shoppers, it was announced that a Shoppers in Toronto would start selling fresh sushi. He laments how so many corporate chains have tried to create one-stop superstores.

“I think the biggest blowback came when Canadian Tire started selling food,” says Sisak. “People said: ‘There’s no way I’m buying food at Canadian Tire.’”

(After a three-year trial that evidently did not meet expectations, the company stopped selling groceries in 2012.)

Sisak says that several customers have come in to Family Health and said, “This is just like an old-fashioned pharmacy,” an assessment in which Sisak takes pride.

“When I was younger and doing work on my house, I thought that I always had to go all the way to the Home Depot to get supplies. But one time, a piece of my underground hose was cut, and I went to Beamer’s instead,” referring to the hardware store in downtown Fonthill.

“One of the guys there—who’s probably worked there forever—brought me down into the basement and cut me off a foot of the hose I needed, added two clamps, and sent me off. That’s what we want to offer here.”

In many ways, Sisak says that Family Health reminds him of his first big job, as the Director of Pharmacy at the hospital in Niagara Falls. Sisak was only 26 then, and shortly out of pharmaceutical training in Toronto. During his 11 years at the hospital, much of his time was spent interacting with doctors and other employees, not patients, making the job as much about human resources as about medicine.

Sisak says that he learnt his most important lesson shortly after arriving at the hospital.

“Someone came in for the accrediting process. I had been through that before in Toronto—staying up all night organizing the books and paperwork and making sure you had all your ducks in a row. This guy didn’t do any of that that. He just sat next to me and asked whether I had done performance appraisals on the staff yet. I was a little intimidated, since I was twenty six and a lot of the staff were in their fifties. But the point was that you have to hire the right people. And if you hire the right people, they’ll all do the things that they’re supposed to, and that stuff will take care of itself.”

Sisak stopped and looked at Winnicki.

“You learned how important human resources were,” she said, then joked, “Now you only have a staff of one.”

Since Family Health shares a building with a medical practice, Sisak and Winnicky interact frequently with doctors and nurses, just as he once did in the hospital.

“It makes things easier for patients, since they can immediately fill their prescriptions, and we can make changes and talk to the doctors if need be,” Sisak said.

When he left the hospital in 2000, it meant that he could no refer to studies or use physician-speak.

“If you’re talking to someone from the public, you can’t mention this study or that study,” said Sisak, adding that he found it rewarding to be able to talk to people about their medications in ways that were clear. Now that he’s next to the doctors, he can speak in both dialects.

Last week a woman came in to ask Sisak about a certain vaccination, and when Sisak told her that a prescription was required, she said that she’d stop by her old doctor in Newmarket, where she used to live.

After she left, Sisak said that the medical practice next to them had been swamped with applications once it became known that they were accepting new patients.

“Between all the people new to town, those without a doctor, and patients of Doctor Pelser [the Fonthill physician whose license has been revoked due to an administrative error], the office has really been inundated. I think that they’ve had to start prioritizing patients without a doctor over those who have doctors a long way away, which is too bad.”

One of the practice’s doctors, Dibyendu Goswami, heard Sisak speaking and walked over to join the conversation. He began talking about the problems in the health care system.

“The biggest trouble is the bureaucracy,” he said. “They take away hospital beds and replace them with chairs—chairs for administrative employees to sit in.”

Sisak smiled.

“That was the idea during the amalgamation of the hospitals into the Niagara Health System. But it didn’t seem to really work. When I started at Niagara Falls, there were over four hundred beds, but that went down to somewhere in the two hundreds.” Despite this, he’s no alarmist.

“When I was starting out in Toronto, it was near the beginning of the AIDS crisis,” Sisak said. “No one knew what to do—patients would be on stretchers in the hallways because we didn’t know how communicable it was. We’d usually only see them at the end, when they’d have serious sarcomas. It was really just palliative care. But in my lifetime, people [with HIV] will die of something else.”

While the AIDS crisis has subsided, there are others that have taken its place. Foremost now is that of opioid addiction, which has killed more Canadians than any epidemic since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Though the situation has attracted greater attention in the United States, it is also a problem even in Niagara. Just after Family Health opened, it was broken into during the night, and Sisak thinks that the burglars were looking for opiates.

“It was not a criminal mastermind,” he said. “The supply has been tightened, so people are getting desperate.”

Sisak said the awareness now has correlated into heightened caution in the profession, and that prescriptions are associated with an individual’s health card to prevent acquisition of opiates beyond need.

“It’s hard because these opiates are needed by some people. Fentanyl was great in the operating room—anesthesiologists would use it as a fast-acting agent,” he said. Sisak pointed to the efforts made to combat abuse of the drugs, including the creation of pills that cannot be crushed into a snortable powder, or which contain a neutralizer which is activated if the pills are liquidized and injected.

Sisak and Winnicki see this overall concern as one consistent with their approach. In addition to the face-to-face attention they say they’re able to devote to everyone who picks up medication, Sisak highlighted the new computer system that he says is more comprehensive than at other pharmacies. “It will help us make sure that no one falls through the cracks.”

After speaking to Goswami, Sisak went back to working at his computer.

“Vacation, that’s a dirty word here right now.”

Sisak suggested that he’ll be able to live vicariously through all of the patients he’ll be immunizing against tropical diseases.

“We take the time to call people six months later and remind them to come in for a booster that will keep them immunized for ten years,” he said, and then started to laugh.

“So I’ll be able to say: ‘How was your vacation? Now here, let me stab you with a needle.’”