“Call me Chichi,” Chichi Ilonzo Momah tells a first-time Springfield Pharmacy visitor. “‘Doctor’ makes me feel old.”
Momah, 37, earned a doctorate in pharmacy from the Temple University School of Pharmacy in 2006. She bought her store on Baltimore Pike in Springfield Township nine years ago and has spent the last 12 months on the pandemic’s front lines.
“The most frustrating thing is not being able to get enough vaccine,” Momah said during an interview, pausing to greet a steady stream of regular customers by name. The pharmacy in the Olde Sproul Shopping Village is a cozy, utilitarian place; its small-town vibe is the antithesis of corporate.
“We put a registration link on our website, but the phones are still ringing off the hook because people are afraid, people are anxious, and people don’t know what to do,” Momah said. “They want to talk to someone. They need help.”
Springfield Pharmacy has 3,500 patients in its system — and 22,000 people on its vaccine waiting list. The store has received two shipments of vaccine since early February, enough to provide about 100 patients with two inoculations.
“We want more vaccine, but I am grateful and hopeful,” said Momah, who lives in Malvern with her husband and their two young children. She’s a confident, welcoming presence behind the counter as well as on the sales floor.
With vaccine supplies and deliveries unpredictable, Momah is working 56 hours a week. Her pharmacy has had to scramble to notify the most medically fragile, needy, or underserved among its patients to hurry in when a vaccine shipment arrives.
“I haven’t seen vaccine hesitancy among Black or other underserved communities” among her clientele, Momah said. “These populations have been calling me to help them gain access to the vaccines. They are terrified of being left out, of being forgotten.”
Charles Price, 83, of Chester, said he feels “very fortunate to be included” among the first to get vaccinated at Springfield Pharmacy. He’s been a customer for five years.
“I was grateful because I didn’t know anyplace else to go,” said Price, who owns a barbershop in Chester.
Sue Morrelli, of Morton, is “76 and proud of it.” She also was grateful to have gotten her first jab.
“I called Chichi and asked her to please put me in the book. And then I got the call,” said Morelli, a retired customer service representative.
“It’s our job to advocate for people like Miss Sue,” Momah said. “I don’t want her to fall through the cracks when she’s supposed to be getting a vaccine.”
Community pharmacies are well-positioned to ensure that Black, brown, elderly, impoverished, or otherwise marginalized people who are eligible for vaccines get them, said Francesca Gunning, a spokesperson for the Good Neighbor Pharmacy program of AmerisourceBergen, the Conshohocken-based pharmaceuticals distributor. Momah’s store is one of the 5,000 independent pharmacies participating in the nationwide network; generally, about half of their typical customers are Medicare or Medicaid patients.
An Inquirer analysis of Pennsylvania data shows 555 different independent pharmacies statewide had received 294,850 doses of vaccine — or 11.4% — of the 2,591,465 total doses delivered as of last week. Hospitals, community health providers, and pharmacy chains account for the majority.
» READ MORE: Vaccine inequities abound in the Philly suburbs
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen independent community pharmacies step up,” Gunning said. “They have been fearless, agile, and able to reach hard-to-reach populations quickly and efficiently. They know what their communities need.”
Joan Hankins, director of admissions at Temple’s pharmacy school, said Momah, as a student, “was always all about the community.”
“I was an adviser to the Student National Pharmaceutical Association and we did a lot of community-based projects,” she said. “People would be lost without their community pharmacies, and Chichi is the right person [to own one] because she connects with everybody. Her personality and her spirit are one in a million.”
Momah credits Springfield Pharmacy’s eight full-time and part-time employees for helping create and sustain the store’s caring atmosphere, even when pandemic restrictions forced it to close (except for deliveries and curbside pickup). “I have an A-team,” said Momah, who describes herself as a first-generation Nigerian American. “They are amazing.”
Jake Gambo, 26, a pharmacist who has worked for Momah for two years, said “relief” is the most common emotion expressed by patients who have been vaccinated at Springfield Pharmacy.
“They feel someone is looking out for them,” said Gambo, a 2019 Philadelphia College of Pharmacy graduate who lives in Newtown Square. “A lot of people are just trying anywhere they can to get the vaccine, and it’s tough.”
Said lead technician Rene Baham, 30, of Drexel Hill, a Springfield Pharmacy team member for two and a half years: “We have loyal customers, so we know them well. People just feel comfortable here.”
Momah, whose smartphone never ceases to ping, said the pandemic has made her appreciate her team and her clientele more than ever.
“I would not be Chichi without them,” she said. “I appreciate my customers for their loyalty. Because of the pandemic, it would have been easy for them to go to another pharmacy for so many reasons.
“From my team, I hear a lot of ‘I got you, Chichi.’ It’s a blessing. And it’s also humbling.”
The last 12 months also have deepened Momah’s appreciation of the little moments that can stop one’s mind and heart even on a grueling day.
“A lot of customers I gave the vaccine to, they cried,” she said. “I gave the vaccine to a 96-year-old patient, and it was beautiful.
“It was an honor.”