Since he was 17, it was always Furkan Muhammad’s dream to have his own pharmacy. And for almost four full years, that dream was his reality. Then on April 24, the dream went up in smoke, literally, when the drugstore where he worked perished in a five-alarm Bronx fire that brutally destroyed seven businesses on a small commercial strip on East 194th Street in Fordham Manor.
Days later the community is feeling the loss too. In this majority low-income neighborhood, many residents seek out their trusted pharmacists, like Muhammad, for all of their medical concerns. “We’re their first responders,” he said. “They don’t go to a doctor first because the doctor is going to charge them. They don’t really have that much medical care, and a lot of them don’t have insurance. We’ve built a lot of rapport with the community, so we can tell them when it’s very serious, and when they have to go to the hospital or doctors.”
Marion Pharmacy was nestled between a pizzeria and a barbershop, which also perished in the fire. It had been a part of the community since 2012. Muhammad joined the team four years ago after 15 years at Walgreens as a pharmacist. “Barber shops and eateries are a dime a dozen, and while there are other pharmacies in the area, none of them have given personalized attention to our patients the way we do,” he said.
Within three hours after the fire, Muhammad, knowing that the pharmacy’s 1,200 patients needs would continue to persist, jumped into action by creating an emergency services makeshift center directly across the street. Outside the small space hangs a handwritten sign that reads: “Marion Pharmacy Emergency Services Center.”
The pharmacy also set up a temporary service to deliver medication to those who couldn’t come get them. “Many of our patients have walking disabilities, and after four years of dealing with each person, you know exactly what type of medications they can take, what can’t they take, and all of their medication requirements.” Muhammad said.
Robin Smith, 57, who lives across the street, has been a customer at the pharmacy for more than ten years. She’s upset about what happened. “It’s tragic” she said. “I’m really sick—my diabetes is bad, on top of my aggressive disease. Some days are better than others, and this pharmacy works with me through all the struggles.” Smith is one of the lucky ones because the pharmacy was able to acquire her meds from their affiliate pharmacy just three days after the fire, helping her avoid further preventable decline in her health.
Muhammad does most of the work himself, though he does get support from an assistant. His days consist of making urgent runs for terminally ill patients and transferring prescriptions to the pharmacy’s affiliate branch ten blocks away.
“We’re doing our best to assist people as usual,” said Muhammad.
Cleanup efforts began last week. Kingsley Aniesona, the construction manager on the site for Elmer Constructions, said emergency permits were just signed by the city and the emergency clearing work was scheduled to begin last Thursday. Most of the work will consist of clearing beams and large objects to allow the fire department to continue its assessment of damages to infrastructure. ”Most everything is damaged though, I don’t think there’s anything to salvage,” said Aniesona.
The pharmacy was underinsured and lost a new shipment of medications in preparation for the first week of the month, which is usually the busiest. But Muhammad is optimistic. “You know God is with you,” he said. “Everything is done for a reason. We have just got to live with it and keep moving on. At least I got two hands, two feet, and a brain I can do anything with.”
The pharmacy is already looking for a new—preferably larger—space around the neighborhood as soon as possible, to better accommodate its clientele. Muhammad views it as a chance to innovate and add services that the old space couldn’t accommodate, including the administration of flu shots and shingles vaccines, and added clinic hours to bring in local doctors after hours for additional patient care.
“We’re trying to bring it back. You don’t build something for three or four years and then let it burn to the ground. That’s why we put the emergency sign right here,” he said. ” Otherwise we could have just tapped out and been done.”