One evening while I was on vacation, my new boss called to tell me Harold had collapsed in the pharmacy and died. They held his funeral service the next morning at a local Jewish cemetery in Peabody. It was overcast and misty as I parked my car and walked on wet grass up a small hill to join the pharmacy group, all standing quietly, waiting. Someone handed me a yarmulke, which I donned like the others. The Rabbi had just finished asking them about Harold. Before I could contribute, he began speaking. 

“Harold was a simple man,” he said. “Extremely mild mannered and soft spoken. Very gentle, very kind. Absolutely dedicated to his profession, to serving his patients at the hospital. He was reliable and thoughtful and compassionate.” This Rabbi, who’d never met Harold, had captured the man’s essence. We were devastated but grateful hearing these truths spoken so eloquently. It was as if he had absorbed our love for Harold and declared it to the heavens. 

Truth was, I hadn’t always revered Harold. When I first worked with him at our busy 300-bed acute care hospital, I thought he was too old school and interpreted his quiet, no-nonsense manner to be that of a snob. Exceedingly quiet, voice scarcely rising above a whisper, he was in his sixties, of average height, stocky, and balding, and with his old-fashioned glasses and short white pharmacy jacket – which he always wore – nerd-like. He constantly stayed busy and rarely spoke about anything but the pharmacy task at hand. 

In contrast, I considered myself “new” school. I’d just graduated pharmacy college and thought my generation of pharmacists was at the forefront of a revolution. Our professors said we received “more formal instruction in pharmacology that any physician,” and our duty was “to expand the reach of clinical pharmacy for the betterment of patient care.” So when I got hired and met several like-minded pharmacists, revolution seemed feasible. We wanted greater involvement in patient drug therapy. We wanted to make medication suggestions to physicians, to participate in clinical rounds, to perform medication counseling, to become active members of the hospital’s clinical committees.

But our boss, the pharmacy director for over thirty years, had a different view. Despite a physician staff that welcomed our input, she kept us sequestered inside the walls of the pharmacy doing old-style dispensing chores, counting and pouring, filling and delivering. I tried to help us move forward, volunteering unpaid hours to attend morning resident rounds and writing a pharmacy newsletter on drug therapy for Parkinson’s Disease, but she angrily shot me down, no thank you. When I suggested to a coworker that things would improve eventually, he responded, “I’ll die, eventually.” Everyone hoped she’d retire. Harold, nearing retirement himself, never joined in on our carping.

Harold seemed content. He routinely arrived early for his evening shift, never called out sick, seldom took time off. Administration had to pressure him to take leave when his vacation hours hit a maximum. He fulfilled nursing’s every wish, sometimes delivering medications immediately to their units, even if they weren’t needed till later. When we answered the phones they’d ask, “Can I speak to Harold?” He treated our boss like a queen, jumping to attention whenever she spoke. Near the end of my day shift I’d slow down and converse with the others. Harold would arrive before three, put his head down to begin working, and passive-aggressively bang the metal Kardexes (patient medication profiles) around, barely speaking, irritated we weren’t keeping busy. I saw him as a holier-than-thou kiss ass.

Eventually, I learned how to handle the boss. I quit offering suggestions and focused on dispensing, just like Harold. We had floor-to-ceiling wooden beams in the department. When she came out of her office, I made sure a beam came between us. The more I stayed out of her mind, out of her sight, the better we got on. Since the assistant director ran operations anyway, our lack of interaction hardly mattered.

Then the assistant director quit and I inherited his duties, without the title, and had to work with the boss directly. She criticized my every action and my every proposal. “If you can’t do the drug order correctly, we’ll have to get someone else.” If I gave an employee a good evaluation, she told me how bad they were and issued a sarcastic, “Everyone’s perfect!” When I met with pharmaceutical representatives, she criticized my cordiality. “You’re being too good to them. Be quick and get them out!”

The pharmacy staff, with the exception of Harold, complained about her rude behavior, and noted how other hospitals paid better and treated pharmacists more professionally. We lost so many employees during this period that I needed to work double shifts – from 7 am to 11:30 pm, returning the next day for a 7 am to 6:30 pm stretch – and double assignments, staffing both the IV Room and Main Pharmacy. 

I found this exhilarating early on. I felt like an athlete, dodging and crashing through interactions and problems, getting the right meds to the right patients at the right times. And I was gratified that my innovative scheduling preserved the quality of our pharmacy service despite diminishing numbers of employees. But as the months wore on, I began to falter and worried about patient safety. I arrived home exhausted but agitated, barely able to sleep, only to return for another round. Word got out about the sorry state of our pharmacy, so there was scant hope we’d get replacements soon. I’d never been a quitter, but one night I called my father to discuss leaving… the others left, why couldn’t I? “She’ll be gone soon,” he said. “It’ll get better. Hang in there.”

Harold hung in there. In fact, he took on extra hours and new duties. This included training to operate the IV Room – a challenge for any pharmacist – and working double shifts and arriving early the next day for another bout of excessive hours. 

I started to appreciate Harold. His toughness, his no-nonsense work ethic, his reluctance to call out sick, to take time off; his willingness to help any way he could. I became acutely aware of how well Harold was serving our patients, patients who would never know of his sacrifice, during this time of tremendous turmoil, to ensure their medications were supplied accurately and without delay. Because of Harold, their drug therapy never became compromised. It’s a tribute to Harold that our pharmacy ran so seamlessly, as smoothly as it had when we were fully staffed.

I became so accustomed to Harold’s reliability that it was a shock when he actually hesitated one day at a request. He said “okay,” but something was amiss.

“Harold, are you sure you can do all these extra hours?”

“Yes. Anything you need.” 

“Let’s go into my office,” I said.

I shut the door. “Harold, please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Joe, my Auntie lives with me. She’s old. I take care of her. She’s been nervous being alone so much lately. I’ll figure something out.” 

“No Harold,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.”

I fixed the schedule so Harold could serve Auntie and the pharmacy. Knowing his desire for privacy, I never brought it up again. A few weeks later, Harold took me aside one afternoon in the pharmacy, saying he wanted to give me a message. He clenched his fist to his chest and said – quietly so no one could hear – “You’ve got it!” Then he looked into my eyes and said it again. “You’ve really got it!” He was declaring me a caring manager, a compliment I’ve always cherished. 

One evening the boss announced she’d be taking the next day off because of an impending snowstorm. She told me I’d have to take her place coordinating the morning’s Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee meeting. I’d never even attended a meeting, and didn’t want to lead one unprepared and embarrass myself before members of the medical and surgical physician staff. I was working that evening, so the only time I had to prepare was after 11:30 pm – if we had a smooth night and didn’t need to work even later. She handed me the meeting materials, grabbed her coat and left. 

Minutes later, I approached Harold at the medication processing workbench in the main pharmacy. It was a rare quiet time – no phone calls, few orders – just me and Harold. I told him about the stress I’d been feeling and my difficulties with the boss. Harold stopped transcribing an order and leaned in close so as not to miss a word. When I mentioned how she’d threatened me, saying she’d replace me with “someone else,” Harold looked up through his black and white crooked glasses and, in an angry whisper, declared her a “son of a bitch!” 

Seldom have I appreciated an outburst of support as much as I did that panicked evening. He was acknowledging my stress and recognizing my work. I felt grateful, in this mess, to have such a friend, to be less alone.

Since Harold had once been a hospital pharmacy director, he had experience running Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committees. I mentioned my assignment, and he said he’d stay with me till I felt ready. Around 11:15 pm, I began my review while he manned the pharmacy. When a topic came up I didn’t understand, I consulted Harold. He defined my role – what was expected regarding the agenda and minutes. One item was a request for a cardiac stress testing drug I knew nothing about. Harold informed me that the requesting doctor would present the drug and that the chairman, not me, would lead the follow-up discussion and the committee members’ vote, putting my mind at ease. 

Over the next few years, after the boss retired and we finally got staff, Harold continued handling the evening shift – consistently, reliably, kindly. When I saw Harold leaving at night, walking out with groups of nurses, I saw smiles on the nurses’ faces. He was their trusted friend. And no matter how difficult Harold’s shift had been, he exuded happiness, as if this profession, this hospital, these people, were what made his life worth living.

Finishing for the night at 12:30, we locked up, set the security alarm, and jiggled both doors to make sure the place was secure. As we left the building, the blizzard lit up the night, snowflakes reflecting the floodlights, white flecks shooting from the black sky. We headed across the street to our cars in the garage, side by side, our shoes imprinting the snowy ground, the snow-filled wind blasting our faces, our wool coats and my hair whitening with the storm’s flakes, Harold’s bald head acquiring a whitish sheen.


Joseph O’Day’s writing focuses on the personal essay form, exploring family relationships and life transitions. His work has appeared in The Critical Flame, bioStories, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Molecule: A Tiny Lit Mag, The Salem News, The American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, and Focus on Faulkner. He received his MA in English (Creative Writing) from Salem State University and served as Nonfiction Editor of Soundings East, Salem State’s literary journal. He was the Director of Pharmacy at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital from 1998 until his retirement in 2018.