Photos by Tom Parker
Right where he belongs–pharmacist returns to small-town roots
For Dustin Rogge, the final straw came at the end of a 36-hour shift. He was tired, he was wired, he was fed up. Before giving common sense a chance to intervene, he picked up the phone and made the call.
Only then did he tell his wife, Keri, that they were now proud owners of a pharmacy in downtown Washington.
“It wasn’t a real smart thing to do,” Dustin says. “You know how it is, men always make the wrong decisions. But I was ready to move back before she was.”
This is not to say that his decision hadn’t been discussed, probed, plotted or planned, for it had. And always the questions turned back on themselves to end where they had started: a comfortable career for the biggest pharmaceutical retailer in the United States, at the busiest pharmacy in the state of Kansas, a nice home in Eudora midway between Lawrence and Kansas City, a good school system, three kids, the whole enchilada. Give all that up for what?
An opportunity. A chance. A dream of returning to roots and family. To escape corporate America for something more enriching, and not just in the financial sense.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The then-current pharmacist had announced plans to retire and close the store by Thanksgiving 2008. His absence would have created a vacuum felt throughout most of Washington County and especially within the county’s most populous city. When Dustin called, he asked the owner to keep the store open until the end of the year. Then he began scrambling to arrange financing, list the house with a realtor and fulfill the thousands of relocation details both large and small, all compressed into a window of a few months.
Now, approaching the second anniversary of the opening of the new and improved Washington Health Mart, Dustin says it was the right move at the right time.
“This is where I belong,” he says.
And not just in a metaphorical sense. He was raised in Palmer, down the road to the south about sixteen miles, and he and his wife are now building a new home on land previously owned by an great-uncle. Keri is also from the area, and both of their families remain in the vicinity.
“That’s a huge, huge positive,” Dustin says. “We’ve even got grandparents who can babysit so we don’t have to try to find someone if we want a night out.”
Owning a rural pharmacy, while having some of the same requirements and workflow as that of the corporate chains, has enabled Dustin to spend more time with his family—one of the biggest positives, he calls it—though admittedly he probably puts in as many hours as before.
The difference, he says, is that much of the work can be taken home, such as paperwork, taxes, insurance, and other non-prescription items. Plus, he can make his own decisions, something unthought-of in a chain.
His previous employer "was big into initiatives,” he says. “Basically, they wanted you to add more work hours and cut your payroll—do more with less, in other words. And you couldn’t say no. With Health Mart, which has 2,700 stores, there’s good buying power there but they’re independently owned. I have control over what I want to do. There’s a freedom of decision I didn’t have before.”
Another freedom they didn’t have before was being able to design a store to their own liking. For Keri, this meant a small line of gift items to attract a wider customer base. And then there was the gourmet coffee shop.
“Folgers was never good enough for Keri,” Dustin says with a laugh. “She was a Starbucks addict. That was her one big concern about moving back. So we put a coffee shop in our pharmacy. If you don’t have it around, you build it yourself.”
Perhaps one of the biggest changes was in customer relations. As a manager in the corporate world, one of his primary chores was dealing with problem accounts and problem customers. People were irritable and often rude, but even when they were polite they were strangers. In Washington, they’re friends and neighbors and their relationships go back for generations. It makes for intimacy and a certain bonding, which itself poses another kind of challenge.
“Unfortunately, most of my customers are sick, and some of them don’t make it too long,” Dustin says. “In Kansas City when a lot of them passed away, I didn’t know about it. They were my patients but I didn’t actually know them. What’s tough here is that you get to know them, their conditions, their families, and you’re usually one of the first to know when they get cancer, say. You make that bond and death takes it away.”
Another challenge for pharmacists in a small town is population loss.
“There’s no room for growth,” Dustin says. “There are only so many people around. With declining population, I have to look twenty years down the road and ask myself if this is going to work. Will it be viable? We have a large elderly population. When they’re gone, will they be replaced?”
It’s a slow process—some would say strangulation—but at 30 years of age and a young family to support Dustin is taking a long view.
“We considered this before the movie but felt the benefits outweighed the risks,” he says. “If necessary I could drive to Manhattan and work for a chain. I mean, I won’t starve. But I’ll fight it all the way.”
Inexplicably, frequently people ask Dustin if he ever has second thoughts about moving back.
“No, no,” he says. “Honestly, no. Do I wish I had started earlier, or moved back right after school? Yes. But I’m a big believer in you are what your life experiences are. The person I am today is based on those not-so-pleasant experiences at [his previous employer]. A lot of graduates can’t wait to leave small towns and never come back. I was that way once, too. But you could also stay and have a lifetime of regret wondering what was out there. Now I can at least say I went out there, and it was all right, but this is where I belong.”