The pharmacy business has changed in some ways during the past three decades, according to Sylvester Lee, who recently celebrated his 30 years in business at a banquet with family, friends, colleagues and community members. At the heart of it, however, the pharmacy business is—as it always has been—about helping people, he said.
“Pharmacy is a critical link in the healthcare chain,” he said. “Pharmacists work with doctors and their patients to assure the best care possible. Sometimes, for example, a patient who is seeing more than one doctor may have been given prescriptions that don’t interact well. I contact the doctors so the situation can be resolved. It’s very rewarding, satisfying work.”
After graduating from the University of Georgia’s pharmacy program in 1978, Lee went to work for a chain drugstore. Seven years later, he left to become an independent pharmacy owner.
“It was a bold move considering that I had a wife and two children with a third one on the way. I was giving up the certainty of a paycheck and benefits for a lot of unknowns. It took stepping out on faith, but I am a man of faith and I know that my future is always in God’s hands,” he said.
Lee said that operating his own business had been his plan from the start. Growing up in Rockdale County, he saw his father, the late Willie Melvin Lee, earn a living operating a barbershop with two partners and his mother, Genoulia Lee, sometimes earn money as a beautician.
“From them, I learned the values and skills necessary to operate a successful business,” he recalled. “They taught me that hard work pays off; you have to have a good work ethic. It takes real dedication to make a business thrive. You have to have good people skills as well. Both my parents were friendly people who knew how to get along with people. I saw them live their strong Christian values every day.”
An active member of a Decatur church, Lee said through his business, Forward West Pharmacy on Martin Luther King Drive in Atlanta, he feels connected to the entire metropolitan Atlanta area. “I work with doctors from DeKalb, Gwinnett, Rockdale, Fulton, Clayton—all over the area. The same is true with patients. People don’t mind driving a little bit to get the quality of service they want.”
He said his choice of pharmacy as a career came from an aptitude for science and a desire to help those in need. “As a child, I was always patching up wounded animals. I knew even then that I wanted to do something in the medical field. I was good in chemistry, biology, physics and other sciences. To be a good pharmacist, you have to be good at science and pay close attention to detail. It’s not an easy field. People who don’t like taking a lot tests would have a hard time becoming a pharmacist.”
Lee observed that although computers now do much of the work that was once done by hand, being a pharmacist today requires as much skill as was required years ago. “There still is a person operating the computer and that person has to know what he or she is doing. But technology does make many things faster and easier. Some of the young people who come to work here can’t believe we once had to use a typewriter to make medicine bottle labels.”
One of the first Black students to integrate Rockdale County Public Schools in 1965, Lee said he’s never been afraid to take on a challenge. “The first pharmacy I opened was in a location that had not been successful for others who had operated business there, but I felt I could make it work and I did. In business, you take risks. You take risks when you choose a location and when you hire personnel. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but when you believe in what you’re doing you make it work ultimately.”
During his three decades in the pharmacy business, Lee has seen many changes. “Keeping up with insurance coverage is far more complex than it used to be. One insurance company might cover a particular drug, while another one doesn’t—and it’s always changing. A company may cover a drug in October and not cover it in November. We work with patients to find ways to help them get their medications if they’re too expensive and not covered by insurance. It may mean calling the doctor to see whether he’s willing to prescribe a more affordable medication.
“One of the things I love about operating an independent pharmacy is that we know most of the patients and they know us. It’s a very personal relationship. You may not find that in a chain drug store,” he added.
Lee and his wife, Jacques, have four children. The youngest, Stedman Lee, has not only followed in his father’s footsteps and become a pharmacist, but he works with his father in his pharmacy. “I kept telling him when he was in college that his school, Florida A&M, has an excellent pharmacy program. He resisted at first, but he finally decided to try it. Now he loves it.”