Ilford pharmacist and Asian Woman of Achievement nominee talks about her pioneering work for drug users; teen pregnancy and family heartbreak

Shaheen Bhatia

Shaheen Bhatia - Credit: Archant

Shaheen Bhatia has pioneered treatment for drug users, spoken out about attitudes towards teenage pregnancy and championed free health checks – but she admits she came close to giving it all up after the death of her husband, Pummy, 18 years ago.

The 51-year-old of Wanstead Park Avenue, Wanstead, was recently nominated for Asian Woman of Achievement in the entrepreneur category, which she said was “overwhelming” despite not winning the final award.

The mother-of-two said: “When I was 15, I got a job in a chemist after my dad fell ill. There were five of us, so I needed to help support the family and I soon realised it was a good field to be in.

“Pummy and I decided to open our own less than a year after qualifying – before we’d even got married.

“There was a well-established chemist on the next block where we’d worked as locums and we lost count of the times people said they were thankful we were able to explain their medicines in their own languages. We saw a gap in the market.”

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They opened P&S Chemist, in Ilford Lane. But when Pummy died of a heart attack in 1995, aged just 30, Shaheen, as well as coping with her grief, had to contend with looking after a young family and juggling four businesses, as well as a debt of more than a million pounds.

She said: “He was a real go-getter, so we accumulated a number of businesses very quickly.

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“When he passed away, the banks really came down on me. It was a massive struggle; I was working seven days a week.

“The chemist was my first baby so I had to put my grief aside to make it a success.

“The biggest sacrifice was leaving my children for the length of time I did, but you must look ahead and survive; it was a very hard period.”

Shaheen said she was totally unprepared for Pummy’s death and the toughest part was carrying on, but she had to for the sake of her family.

Twenty-five years later, P&S Chemist remains, and has paved the way for pharmacy services including free blood pressure and blood sugar tests, annual health check days and treatment for drug users.

She said: “As an independent chemist the fact we offer a personal service is what has kept us going.

“People come in just to say, ‘Hi’, as I have known them for such a long time.

“We don’t just provide health care – to some people we are their friends and family. My children always say to me, ‘Why don’t you retire, you’ve done your bit?’.

“But I need it as well.

“I want people and the local care trusts to realise how much a pharmacy can do.”

Shaheen believes the pressure placed on A&Es, GPs and walk-in clinics can be reduced if more emphasis is placed on pharmacies.

“I just saw so many areas in which I thought more could be done.

“For example, 20 years ago cholesterol testing was not something readily available, so we started offering that.”

Shaheen, who is originally from Birmingham, said at first she was not “taken seriously” as a female pharmacist.

“I really had to earn people’s respect. People even used to call me Mrs Pummy. I was judged by people who thought ‘why aren’t you at home looking after your kids?’”

It is perhaps her work with drug users and the rehabilitation programme she piloted in Redbridge which is her biggest achievement.

She said: “The drugs problem was a rising issue in Ilford during the 1990s but the primary care trust wouldn’t recognise it.

“People knew they had a problem, so we offered supervised treatment. It worked really well and was eventually rolled out across the borough.

“Many drug users would either use dirty needles or leave old ones lying around, which would mean children were being exposed to them too.”

P&S Chemist was one of the first places to offer free needle exchanges in Ilford.

“I would have parents speaking to me about their children and saying there was such a stigma and that there was no one for them to talk to.

“I have met a lot of other chemists who are against helping drug addicts but I think if you are going to go into the health care business you must treat everyone the same. They are happy to help smokers, but drugs are just an addiction too.

“We shouldn’t make that judgement.”

Despite a number of difficult years, Shaheen carried on and has since married an ex-British army captain.

She added: “When Chris talked to me about the horrors of war, it gave me the strength and perspective I needed to carry on and I wonder how I managed without him for 15 years as a widow.

“When people come and tell me I really helped them, or just to thank me for speaking to me, that is what makes my job worth it.”

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