‘Why can’t simple things be checked first before anti-depressants?’

Ola El-Garawany and her daughter Sally El-Banna are on a mission to bring complementary medicine to the fore

Picture of Lily’s: Ola El-Garawany with her daughter Sally El-Banna outside their pharmacy in Ratoath. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Picture of Lily’s: Ola El-Garawany with her daughter Sally El-Banna outside their pharmacy in Ratoath. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

The first time a customer asked for goji berries in Ola El-Garawany’s pharmacy in Ratoath, Co Meath, she had no idea what they were talking about. She had been practising as a pharmacist in Ireland over a decade when she began noticing this rise in numbers seeking alternative cures to their ailments rather than focusing solely on western medicine.

“After a few years I realised I had a gap in my knowledge. Nutrition certificates had become the hot topic, so I decided to study rather than just try to make up big words to people. I don’t encourage people not to take their medicine – lots of medicines on prescription are really important for people’s health – but now with my knowledge in nutrition and complementary medicine, I can improve people’s lives at the initial stage of a disease or illness.”

As she had nearly finished her degree, El-Garawany presumed she would find work in Ireland

El-Garawany’s professional journey as a pharmacist began in the late 1980s when she started studying in Egypt. She moved to Ireland in 1990 after her husband was offered a place at the Royal College of Surgeons. As she had nearly finished her degree, El-Garawany presumed she would find work in Ireland.

“I thought it would be really easy to get into the system straight away. But it didn’t work like that. Sally [their daughter] was only three years old at the time so it was impossible to go back and study in Trinity with a small child.”

Even though she spoke fluent English, the young mother felt desperately homesick. “I spoke English no problem and French too. But it was a different culture and I wasn’t well travelled. I was a real home bird and had never left Egypt or my family before.”

The young family moved around Ireland throughout the early 1990s, living in towns in Limerick and Cork. “I had two small children to look after and my husband needed support. It wasn’t easy, the work he was doing. I was the catalyst for everyone to be happy but deep down I was like ‘what am I going to do with myself?”.

It was unusual for an Egyptian family to live in Ireland at that time and El-Garawany knew she stood out. “People were not used to seeing foreigners so the assumed you were there for a reason and linked us to the hospital where there were foreign nurses and doctors. People were never aggressive but they were cold initially. Then they try to get involved in a conversation with you and once they knew you, you would have a friend for life.”

“I respected the fact that I didn’t look like them and respected their traditions. I came from a background of respecting and understanding different cultures.”

In 1995 the family moved to the UK for El-Garawany’s husband work. However, after five years in Ireland El-Garawany had built up a relationship with the country and missed her new friends. She decided to return with her two children and bought a home in Dublin while her husband opted to stay in the UK. She had already re-started her pharmacy studies at Trinity College and was determined to complete the degree.

I grew up seeing her leave home every day looking so glamorous

She graduated in 1997 and began working with McCabe’s pharmacy before moving to Boots, where she remained for 10 years. Meanwhile, her daughter, Sally El-Banna, had watched her mother’s pharmaceutical career with fascination and after completing her Leaving Cert, decided to follow in her footsteps.

“I grew up seeing her leave home every day looking so glamorous. I also loved all the science subjects in school. For me it was the mix of helping people and working in a glamorous atmosphere.”

El-Banna’s decision to study pharmacy sparked the idea in her mother’s head that the pair could set up their own business. In 2007 El-Garawany opened Lily’s pharmacy in Ratoath and five years later her daughter joined her as a partner in the business.

“I was initially working by myself and that was really tough. From 2008 the pharmacy sector was hit badly by the recession and there were lots of cuts. Pharmacists used to lead a luxurious life but it’s no longer as lucrative as it was. I will never be a multimillionaire. There were lots of sleepless nights but I would do it all again.”

Soon after joining the pharmacy full-time, El-Banna began noticing a rise in the number of patients struggling with depression. She also detected a connection between Irish people’s diet and their mental health.”

“The diet in Ireland is affecting our health as a nation. There is a problem with our nutrition and it’s responsible for a lot of illnesses including depression. We saw there was a big gap in people’s knowledge of food and there’s a lot of basic problems that can be fixed through diet. For the health of our patients, if there was a better option for them than the regular medicine, then they had a right to know and we had an obligation to learn.”

Both mother and daughter are now qualified as diet councillors and also have training in sports nutrition. “We’ve tried to balance our knowledge of western medicine with alternative options,” says El-Banna. “Why can’t simple things like a thyroid test or a Vitamin D test be checked first before anti-depressants? Anti-depressants do work but there are precautions you must take.”

El-Banna hopes to further expand Lily’s Pharmacy into a centre that also offers meditation and yoga as another means of promoting well-being. “There’s so many elements to health and I’d love them all to be in one place and provide people with more than one service.”

Meanwhile, El-Garawany will begin her training as a functional medicine practitioner in November. They both agree that the positive local response to their health centre had given them the drive to keep moving forward. “We’ll never be happy giving out prescriptions without extra advice and a little more knowledge,” says El-Banna. “We’re just trying to spread health awareness.”

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