From Egypt to the Australian outback

George Morkos MPS

For more than a century there was no pharmacy in Wilcannia, NSW – until George Morkos MPS blew into town 8 years ago.

What attracted you to a career in pharmacy?

I always dreamed of being a pharmacist (as well as a musician). I well remember the pharmacist in the suburb where I was raised near Alexandria, Egypt, and how he was respected by everyone. I was never attracted to engineering, like my father. I loved the mutual relationship between this pharmacist and his patients, plus pharmacy in Egypt is very noble, and requires top scores in the higher school certificate, like medicine or dentistry, due to its important and crucial role in improving patient safety.

Why did you migrate to Australia?

I came to Australia 12 years ago after originally intending to move to France, where my uncle lived. Before I left, a pharmacist friend described the beauty of Australia, its stunning, pure nature that looks like the painting of a great artist. He changed my direction 180 degrees to come here.

How has your life changed from growing up in one of the world’s oldest cities to starting two pharmacies from scratch?

When I arrived I worked as a locum pharmacist in Sydney, Melbourne and Western Australia (where Wilcannia’s first pharmacist Henry Armstrong operated after leaving in the 1880s). The first 3–4 years had lots of challenges. I advise recently arrived colleagues to be patient, persistent and have a goal. I was asked in 2014 if I wanted to work in a new pharmacy in Wilcannia. I opened it from scratch then later bought it. The support – the love – I got from the community in Wilcannia, which adopted me, was overwhelming.

No wonder! It is in the middle of nowhere with the closest town 200 kilometres away and more than 700 kms to the nearest city. Before Wilcannia Pharmacy opened, patients in the town and surrounding stations got medicines sent from 200kms away. Imagine you are in Sydney and waiting for your medicine to be delivered from Canberra! We are also lucky to have daily deliveries from Adelaide. And after I opened the first pharmacy, ever, in Menindee, the health and wellbeing in both towns changed. Special thanks to PSA which fought hard for the 7CPA agreement, and the Australian Government, for having a huge, positive impact on the wellbeing of all Australians in the outback.

What is the biggest challenge now?

A shortage of pharmacists and doctors in rural and remote areas. Pharmacists in Egypt work for a year in a rural town before being granted full registration. A similar system may help solve the crisis here.

How has the concept of patient safety risen in recent years?

The biggest challenge was in September last year when almost half of Wilcannia got COVID-19. Most people were in isolation and the town was heading the national news with the NSW Health Minister addressing the COVID issue here almost daily. It was very scary since most of the population is Aboriginal or seniors with chronic diseases. I was so proud to be in Australia, with support from volunteers led by the management team at Wilcannia Central School, Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation nurses and carers, and community leaders. It was overwhelming and we were able to help every single person in the town. Afterwards, we gave COVID-19 and influenza vaccines in both Wilcannia and Menindee and lately COVID-19 boosters, and we hope to open a new pharmacy in the Broken Hill area soon.

Does your family like it in the outback?

My children Abram, 6, and Philomena, 4, both enjoy it. My wife Marian moves between Sydney and Wilcannia. As an overseas-qualified paediatrician, she is currently studying for her Australian registration so she can realise her dream to help and support children in the outback.

So did you ever become that musician?

I did become a professional music player and composer. Check out my music on Facebook (as George Marco).

A day in the life of George Morkos MPS, owner, St Abram Wilcannia Pharmacy, NSW

8.45am Starting the day

It’s full speed ahead every day with children to feed and then mere steps from the back of the historic sandstone St Abram’s building in Reid Street, to open for business in the front.

9.30am Checking everything

Check dose adminstration aids, stock, make orders and check delivery times. A local lady brought in a bottle of turmeric, herbal medicine from another store, but asked us if it was alright to use with her prescription medicines. When we checked, she was already on 20 mg of rivaroxaban. Taking both could have increased her risk of bleeding. She was so happy she did not have to travel far to be safe.

10.00am Blood pressure monitoring

With two pharmacies to oversee, we find that some people in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in particular have never checked their blood sugar or blood pressure. If either level is too high, we refer them to the Maari Ma Primary Health Care Service.

1.30pm Tourist troubles solved 

One lady passing through was distraught when her daughter ran out of epilepsy medicine (Epilim Syrup) but was hugely reassured to know there was a pharmacy in town which also had the medicine in stock! She thanked me tearily and later sent me a thank you card as well.

2.00pm Trainee time

After lunch, pharmacy assistants employed under the Pharmacy Assistant Traineeship Scheme (thank you 7CPA!) take time to finish off their tutorials. When they have completed their courses they will be able to work anywhere in Australia, which may one day help pharmacy unemployment in the outback.

5.30pm My other life

After shutting the pharmacy, sometimes I enjoy the beautiful view of the Darling River and take time out to write new notes on sheet music under a tree on the river. Here is a piece that went viral.