Reggie Mathai dispenses more than product from behind the counter at his Sanibel business.
He's an advocate for the suffering, for those enduring a loss or the realization that a life may soon end. For some, Mathai's comforting got them through the lowest point of their lives. He's only a secret to those journeying through life with few health issues.
"For many patients, this is last gateway in the their lives," said Mathai, the pharmacist and owner of Sanibel Pharmacy. "They need to unload, sometimes just have someone to talk to, to share, to talk about what's out there."
On the surface. it's not hard to see why so many customers/patients find comfort in Mathai: on this random Tuesday visit, he's wearing a black cowboy hat he picked up in Houston, a headphone set lowered to his shoulders. He bubbles with enthusiasm, a beacon of joy in a business that's not always perceived as fun. On this afternoon, he is doubling up on his duties, dispensing care and advice while talking to a healthcare provider over a speakerphone, the conversation clear in the tiny store. He refers to everyone as mister or miss and the first name.
"I'm not understanding, Miss Emily."
"doesn't make sense."
"you don't want to give them more."
And the woman on the speakerphone drones on and on, Mathai working his gift, a smile in his voice, trying to convince her of the inadequacies of the federal Medicare system. Eavesdroppers smile as Mathai good-naturedly banters with the woman, understanding his passion for the patient.
One customer, Polly Rasnick of Sanibel, listening to the phone banter, is sharing that Sanibel Pharmacy "has more of a hometown feel. It's like a family atmosphere," she said. "It's really what you look for in a pharmacy."
Jan Manarite was undergoing a devastating period. Her husband was dying from cancer. The doctors, she said, showed so little concern that she became a national advocate for those suffering from cancer.
"When you can't get to your stinking doctor," the former Islander said, "there are gems (like Reggie) when you need him. They're like the forgotten medical professionals, a lightbulb you turn on."
Mathai, 44, is a product of the northeast -- training in the medical field in New York City -- but came to southwest Florida many years ago. He worked for one of the large pharmacy chains, took ownership of the independent store on Palm Ridge in Sanibel in 2007.
He views his role as more of an advocate, noted in his forty minutes on the phone with the federal health worker.
It's the Golden Rule, he said. "The values I learned from my parents," he said, "are always help when you can. It's a simple concept, to have a good heart, a simple heart, and to understand in this business that people are hurting in some way, whether it's themselves or a loved one."
Mathai quickly notes that chain pharmacists are equally concerned for their patients.
"But they're under-staffed, so upside down," he said. "Those (guys) are taking a beating."
And back to the speakerphone that resonates off a pirated Jelly Belly display with Jordache men's cologne boxes hanging from the racks, shelves of medical supplies, nail polish and vitamins and a wall sign that reads: "Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten."
The joy of advocating is shared in the call.
"no problem, coach."
"very happy to hear that, coach."
"it's all the rage, coach."