Throwback Thursday: Snail mail sleuthing

Pharmacists are no strangers to poor penmanship. What might look like a scribble to most, a pharmacist sees as a complex set of directions from a provider. So when Mayo Clinic Pharmacy received a letter in the mail that was essentially indecipherable except for the words, "I need help," they knew what to do.

Image of elderly woman writingLacey Morlan, an outpatient pharmacy technician in Rochester, found a letter in the mail drop addressed to the "Head of Pharmacy" at Mayo Clinic. At least, that was Morlan's best guess. She sought her manager's advice, and soon an investigation was underway. Morlan and Denise Nesbitt, outpatient pharmacy communication center manager, also enlisted Joshua Grabow, Pharm.D., pharmacy operations manager, to help crack the code.

"Who better than a bunch of pharmacists to decipher tough handwriting?" Nesbitt quips. After a few minutes, they'd sorted out a few more words: "I can't find [indecipherable]. I need help. Can you help me? You do good work. Thankfully yours."

"We still weren't sure what this person wanted," says Morlan, "but we knew we had to help." Nesbitt searched the Internets for the sender's return address in Vancouver, British Columbia, thinking this might give her the patient's name, which she could only half read. That search turned up the name of a Canadian home for senior citizens, which Nesbitt promptly called. "We could only make out a few letters of the last name," she says, "but the person on the phone immediately said, 'Oh, I know exactly who you mean! Her handwriting can be a bit unsteady.'"

Nesbitt left her name and number for the letter writer, who had never been a Mayo patient but who called the clinic a "benevolent organization" in her letter. Less than 20 minutes later, Nesbitt and the woman were on the phone chatting about her bout of appendicitis 66 years ago and her current digestive troubles. "Now the little pieces of the letter we had figured out were fitting together and making sense," Nesbitt says.

Joshua Grabow, Pharm.D., and Lacey Morlan

The team realized she was asking them to help her locate a particular medication that she had taken all those years ago that had "worked magic." But they couldn't read the name of the medication. Once their long-distance "patient" spelled it out, they were off. "None of us in our combined years of experience had heard of this medicine," says Dr. Grabow. "It's been discontinued for longer than some of us have been alive." Fortunately, Nesbitt was able to point the patient to several over-the-counter remedies that she could find at her nearest pharmacy.

In a time when Mayo Clinic connects with patients and others seeking its expertise through Twitter chats, eConsults and the Mayo Clinic Connect online community, among others, a patient seeking advice through the postal service – and international mail at that – seems like a blast from the past. But Nesbitt says in the end, it was just another example of someone reaching out to Mayo who "had never been a patient but knew we would help her."

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