Breathing. Eating. Walking up a flight of stairs.
Many people don’t think twice about the simple routines of life. But for someone with cystic fibrosis, these things just aren’t that simple. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes chronic lung infections and difficulty breathing. And for the parent of a child with cystic fibrosis, things like eating and breathing are among a lengthy list of worries.
One such parent is Erica Rice, mom to 7-year old Brianna who has cystic fibrosis. When a recent snowstorm in New York City threw a wrench in Brianna’s medication regimen, the selfless act of one Walgreens pharmacist left them all happily stunned.
The snow on the ground has since melted … and so will your heart when you hear Erica’s story. We think it’s the perfect first chapter of Walgreens’ newest podcast series called, “Corner Story,” which brings you emotional, quirky, compelling stories from our patients and customers, in their own words.
First, learn more about Brianna’s diagnosis. And make sure to listen to the end when we surprise Erica for a second time.
Erica Rice: Brianna was diagnosed when she was 14 days old through the New York state newborn screening.
So when she was diagnosed, we pretty much hit the ground running with what she needed to have done. We got her into a pulmonologist and got her on her enzymes and started her with her chest therapy. And at that time, all of these new cystic fibrosis medications that people are starting to become aware of were just pipe dreams. These new medications don't just treat the sticky mucus. They don't treat the infections, they don't treat the lack of digestion. They treat the cells in the body so that this thick, sticky mucus doesn't develop in the first place. So that's why these medications are so critical to the future of people with cystic fibrosis, because they're not treating the symptoms, they're treating the cause, and these medications are amazing. And when she was born, we were just praying that one day they would be available, and now she swallows them every day.
Brianna swallows medication every day, but, of course, it is incredibly more complex than that. Erica explains the regimen, and why it’s so important that her daughter never misses a dose.
Erica Rice: So her morning pills and her evening pills are not interchangeable. So it's really critical that she takes the correct pill in the morning, the correct in the afternoon … but it's also critical that she doesn't miss a dose because we're not just treating an infection, we're not just thinning out mucus, we're working on herself.
So I live in Westchester County and this medication that she's on is only available through a specialty pharmacy. You can't just go into your local Walgreens and get it. It's only carried by the Walgreens specialty pharmacies. It's a very costly medication, and as such, the insurance only covers it one month at a time. So I can't, like most of her other medications, get a three month supply. I have to make sure that I constantly have the medication in the house and it gets refilled every month.
So I was coming down to the end of my last card for her – and each card has seven days’ worth of medications – and I called the Walgreens pharmacy that I use, which happens to be in New York city because that's the closest one for us, and what they do is they FedEx it to me. So I called on a Thursday and I asked them to ship it for Friday, but I think I had called too late in the day. So they asked if it would be OK to ship it for Tuesday, and I looked at my card and I knew I had enough medication until Wednesday, so I said that was fine. We've never had an issue in the past. It's always come exactly when they say, so it was never an issue.
What I didn't realize at the time that I agreed to this was there was a snowstorm coming on Monday, and really nobody knew because the snowstorm developed over the weekend.
Now, close your eyes and imagine gazing out your window in Westchester, New York, where heavy snow is beginning to fall. As the inches turn to feet, anxiety sets in.
Erica Rice: So here comes Monday and I was sitting at my desk, and I looked out the window and I realized, “Oh no, it's snowing. I wonder if this prescription is not going to get picked up?”
So I made a note to call the Walgreens pharmacy later to speak to them about how I was going to make sure I got this medication in time so that Thursday morning she wouldn't miss that morning dose.
And before I had a chance to call, the pharmacy actually called me and told me, “Erica, there's this snowstorm. We're concerned FedEx is not going to be able to come pick it up.”
I reiterated to them how important it was that I got this medication.
So it was actually very kind. The manager of the Walgreens pharmacy walked in the snow all the way to the FedEx location to try and drop the package off for me since they weren't going to be picking it up. And it turns out FedEx was completely closed. So it looked like there was going to be no package leaving Walgreens pharmacy on Monday and arriving to me for the Tuesday drop-off as planned.
Now it was time for Erica to find a solution. She began with a call to her Walgreens pharmacy.
Erica Rice: At lunchtime on Monday, when I had a moment from work, I called the pharmacy back and they actually put me on the phone with a pharmacist. His name was Aaron Kim, and I said, “Aaron, I'm in trouble.”
I told him I was really very nervous. I explained that I only had enough medication to get through the end of the day on Wednesday – I believe it was supposed to continue snowing all the way through Tuesday.
So I didn't know what was going to end up happening. And he started brainstorming with me, and I asked him if I could give her one of her evening pills Thursday morning, just to buy me some time. And he, once again, reiterated what I already knew, that these pills are really not interchangeable. So, really, the only option was going to be her missing her pill Thursday morning, or trying to just miraculously find a way to get this box of medication to me.
So I heard him brainstorming out loud and I heard him say, “Well, you're really not that far from me.” And at this point I'm standing at the window looking outside and the snow was coming down. I could barely see.
And I said, “Aaron, no.” I said, “You sound incredibly kind and generous, and I appreciate it,” I said. “But you're in New York City. And snow is very different in New York City than it is in Westchester.”
I think this was the storm where we got 18 inches of snow. The plow had not come down my street all day.
I said, “Aaron, you're not making it here. I appreciate it, but I'm not going to have you risk your life to come bring me my daughter's medication. Let's just take our chances with shipping it.”
So he said, “Let's check in on Tuesday at noon and we'll make a plan. Let me do a little more brainstorming.”
And we hung up. And honestly, I just kind of had to breathe through it and go about my day because I couldn't wrap my head around all of this worry about the medication. I couldn't let it consume me.
So the next day comes, Tuesday morning, and I sat down to work. An,d thankfully, I'm a teacher and I've been teaching from home. And, thankfully, my student teacher was leading the morning meeting because I never answer my cell phone when I'm teaching, but she was leading the morning meeting and I'm sitting here at 8:30 in the morning. The plow had come down my street for the time in 24 hours, about two hours before that, I think it was 6 in the morning, and the plow had just come down my street. Snow is still falling. I still can't see out my window. My phone rings, and I looked down and I saw a phone number that I didn't recognize. And not only do I not answer the phone when I'm teaching, but I also never answer the phone when it's a number I don't know … but for some reason, this time I decided to answer the phone.
So I muted myself on my class, and I answered the phone and it was a man who said, “Hi, Erica, this is Aaron.”
And I said, "Aaron? Why are you calling me?”
He said, “Erica, do you have an Odyssey in your driveway?”
I said, “What? How do you know I have an Odyssey in my driveway?”
And he said, “I think I'm outside the right house.”
And I couldn't even speak. I didn't know what to say. I just, I ran to the front door. I grabbed the first mask I could find, which was this bright orange Halloween mask, and I opened the front door and there's his car sitting on the street in front of my house … and he's climbing through the snow to get to the front door with a Walgreens bag in his hand.
And he said, “Here. I didn't want to risk it yet getting to you.”
And I said, “Aaron … what?”
I didn't even know what to say. Honestly, I was completely speechless. I offered him something and he said, “No, no. This is why I became a pharmacist.” He said, “I always wanted to help people. And I'm just elated that I was able to bring her medication to her so that she doesn't miss her dose.”
And my daughter was standing in the living room, looking out the window. I don't even think he saw her, and she's watching all of this happen.
And I turned around and I said, “Brianna, the pharmacist just brought you your medication from New York City in the middle of a snowstorm.”
And she looked at me and she said, “Mommy, he risked his life for me?”
I didn't even know how to respond to her. And I just said, “Yeah, honey, he did. He brought you your medication all the way.”
And he didn't even know what to say either. He was just shocked at what a kind gesture this was, for Aaron to go out of his way like this, to bring her her life-saving medication.
Walgreens pharmacist Aaron Kim gave Erica more than a bag of medication that day. He gave her peace of mind.
Erica Rice: When you're a parent of a child with any chronic illness, there's a list of worries that are constantly in the back of your mind, always. And to know that we didn't have to worry about her getting her medication was such a huge gift. That one worry, for now, could be crossed off of our list was the biggest gift that Aaron could have given us that day.
Honestly, this man was … he was an angel on Earth for us that day. And ironically, it's funny. I actually had to refill her prescription today. I had to call the pharmacy again to fill her new prescription. And I just had a smile on my face, just talking to whoever it was that picked up at the pharmacy because I feel like they're family. I know I have someone looking out for us who really cares. It wasn't just a pharmacist filling a prescription. Someone cared, and that means the world to us.
Walgreens pharmacist Aaron Kim
As Erica retold her story, what she didn’t know was that Aaron was also sitting quietly on the line, waiting for the right moment to jump in. Time for the big reveal …
Brittany Kruk, Walgreens Stories: Erica, we do have a little surprise for you.
Erica Rice: Oh, what?
Brittany Kruk: We actually have Aaron on the line with us as well. Aaron, are you there? Do you want to say hello?
Aaron Kim, Walgreens pharmacist: Absolutely. Hi, Erica.
Erica Rice: Hi, Aaron.
Aaron Kim: Like I said to you once before, “Great, now you have us all in tears.” I’m a hot mess here.
Erica Rice: Well, you know what? Honestly, no time will pass that will make this feel any less special and amazing to us.
Aaron Kim: If you don't already know, cystic fibrosis, it's actually a very small community and it is a privilege for me to be welcomed and accepted into this community. I can't take credit for something that, you know, I didn't even think twice. It's just absolutely something that I had to do. Hearing your story, I am in tears myself. And to know that I've got a friend and family for life, it was really an honor. I hope that one day when this pandemic is over that I get to meet Brianna.
Erica Rice: Absolutely. And it was so funny. As soon as you got back in your car and started driving away, and I started regaining my ability to think, I said, because Briana was right there, I thought I should've put her in front of the storm door with you behind the storm door and taken a picture to remember this forever. In a way, it's just such a nice heartwarming feeling to just know that even if you two didn't see each other, really that she was there to witness at all.
Just knowing that someone like you exists on this earth, Aaron, honestly, it makes me wake up with some hope for the future for my children.
So far you’ve heard the story from Erica’s point of view. Listen as Aaron shares what was happening on his end of the line, and during his trek through the blizzard to her home.
Aaron Kim: If you had seen Erica, sort of her face, she was stunned. And my goal, it was really just the drop off the package. I knew that you're a teacher and that you would be busy. So I didn't want to take up too much of your time. So, you know, I sort of dropped off the package and quickly left, not wanting to disturb you, although now I know that you were just stunned and I feel bad about just leaving so quickly and not at least waving to Brianna in the window. And, you know, I had driven up the block and because there was so much snow, the numbers, there's mailboxes at the end of the driveway, and the numbers were just completely covered. So that's when I called you. And I thought about calling you first, before I left that Monday. Yeah. I mean, the snow was just so bad that bringing it up that day wasn't an option. But I knew that I at least had a couple of days to buy myself time with. There was a real good chance that it was going to get lost. I was like, I knew that I had to bring it over. However, I could sense the anxiety when I spoke to you that day, I could sense the anxiety in your voice, and so I didn't want to call you and almost get your hopes up high and then disappoint, you know, just in case the weather hadn't cleared up.
But Tuesday morning it did clear up. It did clear up enough that I felt OK. And I still didn't want to call you because it really was sort of a step by step. OK, let me just get to the highway. OK, it was clear. Let me just get off the highway. You know, maybe the plow hadn't come through. So I didn't want to, until I actually got your house, I didn't want to get your hopes up high and then disappoint you.
I've been in the world of cystic fibrosis now for almost two years at this point, and it really is unlike any other condition. So I know what it feels like to be anxious when something that's so important is not in order. The fear of the unknown is very real for me. So, I did this for Brianna. I did this for you. And really, it was just a privilege to be able to help you and put your mind at ease, at least this one more time.
Erica Rice: Well, thank you, Aaron. You really, you made a difference in all of our lives. So we always, always remember this as the month that the pharmacist rescued us.
Aaron Kim: I had told my mom about this story and had her in tears, of course, too. And then at the end of it, she said two things. She said, “Great, my eyeliner is now down my face.” And No. 2, “The college tuition has paid off.”
Erica Rice: And thank you to your mother for raising such an amazing human being.
Aaron Kim: Oh, thank you.
We hope you enjoyed chapter one of Corner Story, a heroic example of when a Walgreens pharmacist became family to a little girl with cystic fibrosis and her endlessly grateful parents.