Namesake owner will provide an enjoyable pharmacy experience
by Benny Cartwright
To most people, visiting a pharmacy to pick up medications is probably nothing more than a typical errand. Some may even think of it as a hassle, opting to order their prescriptions online and having them shipped to their doorstep. But Chula Vista resident Ivy Rooney, a new pharmacy owner who is not new to the business, wants to make sure that visiting the pharmacy is an experience that makes everyone feel valued and respected, and one that they might even enjoy or look forward to.
Rooney, along with her business partner Dr. Aram Penaranda, are embarking on opening a brand new local pharmacy in the heart of Hillcrest, Ivy Pharmacy. The pharmacy will move into the space that previously housed AHF San Diego Pharmacy and Health Center on Fourth Avenue, before they moved to a new, larger location on Fifth Avenue. Ivy Pharmacy will be situated in the same building as Being Alive San Diego HIV/AIDS Services, one of the longest-running local non-profit organizations serving people living with HIV/AIDS.
Starting in the pharmacy industry in 1991, shortly after graduating high school, Rooney never expected that her life’s work would be in the HIV and pharmacy fields. She got a job that year at University Pharmacy Health Center (which later became Priority Pharmacy) as a file clerk. This was only a few years after AZT drugs were approved by the FDA to treat HIV, but the crisis was still raging, so these pharmacies, especially in Hillcrest, were busy.
Eventually, Rooney moved out of her clerk role and became a receptionist, then joined the customer service call center. University Pharmacy Health Center was part of a national network of pharmacies, so she would interact on the phone with customers from all over the country. This was the point where she realized this was the right field for her as she had started to develop friendships with those she would speak with.
“I heard all sorts of lived experiences from the people I would assist on the phone,” said Rooney. “People living with HIV and AIDS were going through some really bad things, especially in places like the MidWest.”
Rooney was able to use these conversations to be a friendly voice for people on the other end of the line who may not have any other support network.
It was also around this time that Rooney met the late Joy Galloway, who provided services and care to people living with HIV/AIDS from the earliest days. Galloway, who co-owned pharmacies earlier in her career until 1980 and later began consulting, was known for her behind-the-scenes work to make sure anyone in San Diego who needed medication or support could get it.
The obituary for Galloway, who passed in 2019, found on legacy.com stated: “It was during this phase where her life’s work as an AIDS caregiver at University/Priority Pharmacy began. The movie ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’ had nothing on her, as she helped ‘Joy’s Kids’ get on the latest meds, get on new and emerging drug trial studies, and in many instances, sat alongside them as they came out to their parents, both about their sexual orientation and their deadly disease.”
Rooney said that Galloway started taking her to a lot of local HIV community events, such as the viewing of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and AIDS Walk San Diego. She started to make connections here with others who were working in the HIV/AIDS space and realized how important these relationships were to her.
“[This work] is not about the medications, it’s about the people,” Rooney said, describing how she has looked at this work ever since.
As time went on, new medications were developed, and Rooney was overjoyed to get to see a lot of her customers and friends who had once been really sick, become really well. Through all the excitement of this new day in HIV, though, there were reminders of the many, many people who were lost and didn’t make it through those darkest days of HIV/AIDS.
“With all the happiness, there was a lot of sadness,” Rooney said. “I still think about all of the coworkers and people that I was close to who we’ve lost, and every single one of them was such a gift. These people weren’t just customers and co-workers, we had built relationships and friendships — again, it was about the people.”
Rooney’s career took her to other pharmacies — all in Hillcrest – including Fifth Avenue Pharmacy. She said she really enjoyed working there because it was a truly local pharmacy, unlike the previous pharmacies she worked at that had a local connection but national structures. At Fifth Avenue, Rooney worked for Steve Pattison, a gay man who was likely the only gay pharmacy owner in town at the time.
For a brief period of time, she followed Pattison to Palm Springs to help him open Community Pharmacy Center in the desert and then came back to San Diego to work at the local branch of Community. This pharmacy is now owned by Walgreens as part of their Walgreens Community Pharmacy network.
Rooney really enjoyed working for the local pharmacy, which allowed her to build the connections and relationships that aren’t always possible in a corporate/chain pharmacy. Once Walgreens took over Community, Rooney was able to find a position at Hillcrest Pharmacy, where she worked for almost 10 years. There, she continued to focus on building relationships and providing the exceptional customer service that our community not only expects, but deserves.
“I know that good service is huge,” Rooney said. “Hillcrest has high customer service expectations, and whether it’s in a bar, store, restaurant, bank, or pharmacy, we give that to each other because we all deserve it. To feel loved and made to feel special is what keeps us coming back.”
Hillcrest Pharmacy was eventually acquired by a larger chain, and again, Rooney realized it just wasn’t going to be the right fit. She wanted to be able to continue to maintain the relationships with her customers and didn’t want to have to give up those connections she worked so hard and long to develop.
“I place value on relationships,” she said.
With the acquisition of her last pharmacy a few years ago, Rooney decided it was time to create her own pharmacy, where the values she has worked with over the last three decades could continue.
Enter Ivy Pharmacy.
This new, locally-owned pharmacy is going to be a place where Rooney and her staff can treat every customer like they are a valued human being. They will not just be treated as a face that goes with a prescription bottle or a dollar sign.
In fact, Rooney, who is married with four children of her own, is not expecting to make a lot of money on this endeavor, but knows she needs to do this to continue to be there for the community.
“The most important thing is great customer service and having a network of people who are able to support each other,” she said.
While Rooney’s pharmacy won’t have the ability to provide a whole network of ancillary services for people in need, she will never say no if someone is in need of something beyond their medication.
“I will always tap my networks to support anyone,” she said. “People don’t need to live every day thinking about their medications, their disease state, or other struggles they have. We’re here to help them live a better life!”
She envisions her pharmacy as a place where people can come to feel safe, to discuss whatever they want, and be understood and listened to. It’s also important to Rooney that processes and barricades are explained to people.
“So many times we’re told ‘no’ but not told the reason for that ‘no,’” she explained. “People deserve to understand the why, and we will work with them to figure out issues, be it with insurance or other things.”
Rooney also pointed out that a positive experience at the pharmacy can lead to better health outcomes.
“As I’ve said, it’s not about the medication, it’s about a person and their experience,” she said. “If they dread coming to the pharmacy, they may be less likely to adhere to their medication.”
Rooney said she loves Hillcrest – she’s been a part of the neighborhood for 32 years — and she can’t wait to open her doors. The pharmacy is full-service, so while her career has focused on the HIV community, they can fill any type of prescription for any condition.
While Rooney herself is not a pharmacist, her business partner Dr. Penaranda is, and she has hired a full-time pharmacist who will begin work soon. Her pharmacist will be bilingual and is an expert in HIV and diabetes care.
Ivy Pharmacy should open in the next month, once they figure out some logistical challenges that come along with opening a business. There will be a grand opening celebration the day before the medications arrive so the community will be able to tour the entire space (community members won’t be allowed beyond the lobby area once medications are in the building). Rooney also hopes to sell and make a variety of other products accessible, like sexual wellness supplies, so people have a place to buy what they need without judgment.
The pharmacy will eventually take all pharmacies (except plans like Kaiser and TriCare, which are restricted to their own in-house pharmacies) and she looks forward to welcoming anyone and everyone looking for a new place to conveniently get their medications and wants to be served by friendly, supportive staff.
While the website was not yet active at the time of publication, Rooney said it will be live within a week and interested customers can reach out to her there. The website will be ivypharmacysd.com. The pharmacy will be located at 3940 Fourth Ave., in Hillcrest.
–Benny Cartwright is a longtime activist and community leader. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @BennyC80.