The watch, the vaccine and the pharmacist

The watch, the vaccine and the pharmacist
Customers stand in line outside of Van Dorn Pharmacy. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Will Schick |

At around 9 a.m. on Jan. 15, Yodit Gulelat, the owner of Van Dorn Pharmacy, found herself facing down a growing line of elderly patients eager to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. The pharmacy had just received its first batch of Moderna vaccine doses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the line outside her door was ballooning.

Gulelat, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 1986, worked non-stop to process the winding line of patients.

“I didn’t see her take a sip of water,” Pamela Norton, director of business development for a local architectural firm who had been at the pharmacy throughout the vaccination process, said.

Norton had come to the pharmacy that morning to see if she would be eligible for a vaccination but said she found herself quickly volunteering to help Gulelat get through her expanding line of elderly patients.

“She was there … walking back and forth to the photocopier copying people’s licensed healthcare cards, on top of administrating the vaccine. So, it was taking at least 10 minutes a person, and you know, it’s cold and people are standing outside,” Norton said.

A line of customers stands outside of Van Dorn Pharmacy.
The line outside of Van Dorn Pharmacy stretches around the parking lot. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Norton said she assisted Gulelat in answering questions from people in line and helping to move those patients with disabilities and mobility issues up to the front. Several other people who had come by that morning also stayed to provide similar assistance.

By 2:30 p.m., Gulelat had run out of vaccines, having administered the shot to more than 80 customers. Despite the long waiting times, both Norton and Gulelat said no one complained.

According to Gulelat, the Van Dorn Pharmacy received its approval to open from the Virginia Board of Pharmacy in May of last year, but COVID-19 dealt them some minor setbacks and left them unable to fully open until a couple of months ago.

In the meantime, Gulelat said the pharmacy worked with the CDC to become a local COVID-19 testing site.

“Because of that, the CDC asked us to [help] vaccinate,” Gulelat said.

While it has only been open for a few months, the community has flocked to Van Dorn Pharmacy and created a network of support during a trying time.

As Gulelat was administering the vaccine, many residents stepped up by going to nearby stores and picking up coffee and food for Gulelat and her small staff and team of impromptu volunteers. Gulelat and her staff were also visited by doctors and nurses who said they would be more than happy to help with administering the vaccines if needed, according to Gulelat.

Van Dorn Pharmacy employs a small staff of pharmacists and technicians, some of whom are Gulelat’s sisters.

“A retired doctor came in. He said, ‘Let me help you. I am retired,’” Gulelat said. “And the nurses were like wanting to come and help. [It was] amazing, amazing. I mean, we really discovered things that I can say has brought a lot of people together.”

And to think, if it had not been for a watch, there would be no Van Dorn Pharmacy, and none of this would have happened, Gulelat said.

“My dad, when he was in the Korean War, he was awarded a Korean watch,” she explained.

Gulelat’s father, Colonel Gulelat Menberu, had been part of a contingent of Ethiopian troops who traveled to Korea starting in 1951 to fight in support of the United Nation’s mission during the war. After Menberu completed his service, he was awarded a Korean watch, which he took home with him to Ethiopia.

A photo of Colonel Gulelat standing next to a military jeep in Korea.
Colonel Menberu stands next to a military jeep marked with the Ethiopian flag in Korea. (Photo courtesy of Yodit Gulelat).

But in 1974, a socialist military junta toppled the country’s leader, Emperor Haile Selassie. The new government stripped Ethiopians of their private property. They took Colonel Menberu’s house – and his prized watch too.

“On his deathbed he said, ‘I cannot give you anything, I don’t have anything to [pass on to] you,’” Gulelat said. “What I can give you is an education. Everything has been taken from me, even my Korean watch.”

For the past four years, the seven sisters, six of whom are pharmacists, have been trying to recover their father’s house in Addis Adaba but, ultimately, have been unable to secure it. Like the watch, the house too, became lost to memory.

“When they said ‘No,’ I said ‘Okay, I’m going to open a pharmacy, and [I’ll] make sure that I take care of the elderly people,’” Gulelat said.

According to Gulelat, the pharmacy offered them a way to fulfill their father’s legacy, something he had hoped to pass on through his house and his watch. She currently runs Van Dorn Pharmacy with the help of some of her sisters.

Around the time her pharmacy received its approval from the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, something surprising happened.

Gulelat heard from a long-lost friend of her father’s, a man named Dick Thornton. Gulelat said Thornton claimed he knew her father from the war in Korea and had even carried a picture of him in his wallet for more than 60 years. Thornton had been trying to track down the family by asking around Korean and Ethiopian immigrant communities for the past several decades.


Yodit Gulelat's father, Gulelat Menberu (left) and his friend Dick Thornton (right) pose together for a picture during the Korean War
Yodit Gulelat’s father, Gulelat Menberu (left) and his friend Dick Thornton (right) pose together for a picture during the Korean War. Photo Courtesy of Yodit Gulelat.

In the end, Menberu’s friend Thornton proved himself to be a more faithful keeper of time than the watch the Colonel had been awarded. Ultimately, it was Thornton, not the watch, which brought memories of Gulelat’s father’s wartime service tumbling into the present.

“So, I’m on the phone with this man I haven’t met. He’s 92 years old. I have his phone number. He sends me [a picture of my dad and him]. And he was bawling. He was crying. And he said, ‘I’m glad I [met] my friend’s kids.’”

Just as Thornton had met Gulelat’s father during a time of calamity, he found himself now meeting Menberu’s daughter during a different kind of unprecedented crisis.

During the pandemic, Gulelat has driven out to local nursing homes to administer the influenza vaccine. She has done house calls for people on occasion who can’t travel to her location, and she has honored the legacy of her father’s selfless wartime service in ways that no watch ever could. Gulelat also said that, unlike other pharmacies, when it comes to services, she is not charging her customers.

“Suppose they come here, and they say, ‘We don’t have insurance,’ I say, ‘I don’t care, I want everybody to get better’ because America gave us a chance that our country did not give us,” Gulelat said.