Title: From Farms to Pharma
Author: Ron Stark
Reviewer: Helen Cowan, RN
What was it like?
The title of this book intrigued me. I had never been a farmer, nor worked in the pharmaceutical industry. What could it teach me as a nurse? The author Ron Stark convinces the reader (nurse or not) of the book’s absolute relevance from the first page, stating, “There are few people on this planet who will not take a medication at some time in their lives”. The title alludes to Stark’s childhood in a farming town in Scotland, and his work in the pharmaceutical industry. The biographical element merely serves as a structure on which to build a rollercoaster ride through drug discovery (involving drugs that all nurses will have used); catastrophic safety fears (every nurse has worried whether they have inadvertently caused harm) and management issues (relevant at all nursing levels). More than that, the book exudes humour, humility and a patient-centred attitude: all essential attributes of a nurse. For these reasons this book is a rare treasure, being applicable to ward nurses, specialist nurses, ward managers and students.
What were the highlights?
Stark’s first exposure to drug discovery was during the typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen in the 1960s. Written as a diary, the reader feels as though living through the dark days of wondering what the cause was (a tin of corned beef) and whether a dubious drug would be successful. Problems arise as he researches oxygen therapy for patients with pulmonary hypertension and is tackling the logistics of supplying numerous oxygen cylinders to patients’ homes; meanwhile a possible drug treatment for COPD is unsuccessful, but a providential meeting turned this failure into the successful development of a novel drug delivery system. The emotional and eventful journey as propofol is used on the first patient and then released for mass use is worth reading.
Then catastrophe strikes: one drug is proven to cause serious side effects. Another is rumoured to cause chromosome damage similar to that caused by radiation: months of turmoil and tests ensue, and as a reader you will be on the edge of your seat. Remarkably, Stark can even extend sympathy to those whose clumsy research had led to the allegations. A similar kindness is seen in his management role, when he does not speak badly of a medical writer whose safety report was so long and arduous that it threatened the success of the entire project. He does, however, sense friction and threat from middle management: something all nurses have witnessed.
Strengths & weaknesses:
Stark’s humility is impressive: he has clearly worked on important projects with eminent people yet always credits team members of all ranks. He states, “the team’s failure is the manager’s failure”. His work with drug addicts in retirement is inspiring: could more NHS managers follow his people-first example?
Humour is also essential to his writing: we meet the patient having a sneaky cigarette whilst on oxygen, and the keen golfer seeking a hayfever cure. As nurses, we value the characters we meet.
A “patient champion” and not a “product champion” defines Stark: when critics attack his product, his main concern is to reduce patient anxiety and to prove safety. Can we truly say that we always put patients first?
Who should read it?
Ward nurses, specialist nurses, ward managers and students.