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The Life of a Small-Town Druggist
Published on October 30, 2011 by Sara Foss

I'm trying to catch up on my New Yorkers, and I finally got around to reading this nice little slice-of-life story by Peter Hessler, about the life of a druggist in the remote town (population: fewer than 1,000) of Nucla, Colo.

Here's an excerpt:

"In the southwestern corner of Colorado, where the Uncompahgre Plateau descends through spruce forest and scrubland toward the Utah border, there is a region of more than four thousand square miles which has no hospitals, no department stores, and only one pharmacy. The pharmacist is Don Colcord, who lives in the town of Nucla. More than a century ago, Nucla was founded by idealists who hoped their community would become the 'center of Socialistic government for the world.' But these days it feels like the edge of the earth. Highway 97 dead-ends at the top of Main Street; the population is around seven hundred and falling. The nearest traffic light is an hour and a half away. When old ranching couples drive their pickups into Nucla, the wives leave the passenger’s side empty and sit in the middle of the front seat, close enough to touch their husbands. It’s as if something about the landscape—those endless hills, that vacant sky—makes a person appreciate the intimacy of a Ford F-150 cab.

Don Colcord has owned Nucla’s Apothecary Shoppe for more than thirty years. In the past, such stores played a key role in American rural health care, and this region had three more pharmacies, but all of them have closed. Some people drive eighty miles just to visit the Apothecary Shoppe. It consists of a few rows of grocery shelves, a gift-card rack, a Pepsi fountain, and a diabetes section, which is decorated with the mounted heads of two mule deer and an antelope. Next to the game heads is the pharmacist’s counter. Customers don’t line up at a discreet distance, the way city folk do; in Nucla they crowd the counter and talk loudly about health problems.

'What have you heard about sticking your head in a beehive?' This on a Tuesday afternoon, from a heavyset man suffering from arthritis and an acute desire to find low-cost treatment.

'It’s been used, progressive bee-sting therapy,' Don says. 'When you get stung, your body produces cortisol. It reduces swelling, but it goes away. And you don’t know when you’re going to have that one reaction and go into anaphylactic shock and maybe drop dead. It’s highly risky. You don’t know where that bee has been. You don’t know what proteins it’s been getting.'

'You’re a helpful guy. Thank you.'

'I would recommend hyaluronic acid. It’s kind of expensive, about twenty-five dollars a month. But it works for some people. They make it out of rooster combs.'"

The article is mostly a character study, but it also touches upon important issues, such as the difficulty of obtaining decent health care in rural areas, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to avoid incurring huge health care bills when they lack insurance.


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