In the first in an occasional series on pharmacists' stressful experiences, Peter Tinkler, of Royal Mile Pharmacy in Edinburgh, describes how he coped when a customer held his staff up in a three-hour siege
It was 6pm, May 15, 2013, and I was just about to close the pharmacy for the evening. Suddenly a man and woman entered the premises brandishing Stanley knives, forcing me at knife point to close the door of the pharmacy.
Three members of staff – one of whom was pregnant – three customers and myself were held hostage. But one of my staff did manage to leave via the back entrance to the shop and called the police. The pharmacy is also situated on a busy street so there were plenty of people outside who could see what was happening.
Threatened to set pharmacy alight
I immediately recognised the man – he had been coming to the pharmacy every day for several years, and I knew he had been under some psychiatric stress. It was clear to me that he had picked our pharmacy because he felt safe there. It also became clear that this was a grand suicide attempt by the assailants – to take hostages, have the police arrive, and then to be killed. The police arrived quickly at the scene – I heard verbal exchanges between them and the male assailant.
During the course of the three-hour siege, varying levels of violence were used against myself – I was shoved, pushed and threatened with knives. The man later got hold of some isopropyl alcohol, poured it over part of the shop, and then threatened to set light to it.
The woman he was with made us open the drug cabinet and helped herself to large quantities of controlled drugs – predominantly morphine – then started taking them. She took so much morphine she collapsed. I thought she was possibly dead. To try and save her, I gave her naloxone to counteract the effects of the drugs she had taken.
The whole experience was surreal. It was almost like being an extra in a Quentin Tarantino film – you feel detached from what is happening, even though it is happening to you.
Eventually the police got into the building through the back entrance, used a Taser gun on the male assailant and took both people away.
The pharmacy staff and I were then interviewed by the police. After that, I went home to my family, who had obviously been extremely concerned. My son had actually seen the story break on Twitter as the siege was happening – social media is that instant.
The next day, I was back at work. To my surprise and eternal gratitude, there was immediate action from staff at NHS Lothian Health, who came to the premises and gave me a hand getting everything back together, as the pharmacy was in a real state. Tablets had been thrown everywhere and stock levels were impossible to calculate, so I needed help with rebalancing all my controlled drug stock.
I was also offered counselling – as were all the staff – which I took. I’d always been a bit cynical about counselling, but after six weeks my views completely changed.
Support from customers and the community
Customers were very distressed for me In the aftermath of the incident. After the siege I got a lot of help from some of my suppliers, which included sending in people to help me review the pharmacy’s security. I learned that, until that incident happened, my security had been based on keeping people out – as I’d tried to make breaks-ins difficult. But in a possible hostage situation you require police to be able to get in, and as we had toughened glass on the window, the police couldn’t break it. So now we have addressed those access issues by, for example, ensuring a set of keys are off the premises.
I still put what happened down to bad luck. We weren’t doing anything that made us a target other than – ironically – giving a good service, and quite possibly, that’s why we were picked out. Both the male and female perpetrators were convicted a few months after the incident, receiving six years and four years respectively.
Facing the future
When something like this happens, the important thing is to engage with everybody involved in your business, and in the wider community. A lot of people – colleagues and customers – were affected by this incident, such as the older lady with a serious heart condition who left the pharmacy just a few minutes before the siege began, and who thinks she would probably not have survived had she had to go through the experience.
I was impressed with the level of help and support I had from both customers and other pharmacists. Often as a community pharmacist you feel you’re standing alone. I took a lot from the fact that when the chips were down, so many people were helpful. And because of this experience I know I’m not standing alone.