'My life-sustaining medication is out, everywhere. This is what it’s like.'

I reached the counter of my twelfth pharmacy, heart pounding, eyes brimming with tears, and choked out, “I called earlier about the hydrocortisone”.

The pharmacist looked confused.

“The woman on the phone said you had three bottles of the 20mg,” I said.

She scanned the shelves quizzically. “Nope, we have one left that’s about to expire but that’s all.”

This was it. Breaking point. My tears shook themselves loose and flooded her counter.

I have Addison’s Disease, an autoimmune disease that affects my adrenals, rendering them entirely ornamental. Among other drugs, I take Hydrocortisone four times a day at specific intervals to replace the life-sustaining cortisol my body can no longer produce.

It's a drug that keeps me alive, and if I go without it, even for a period of a few days, I die.

It’s always felt unnerving, being so dependent on a medication to live, but it’s outright crippling when supply of that drug seemingly out of nowhere, dries up.

You know how they say, when it rains it pours? Well, to make matters more critical, due to complications from another autoimmune disease, I’m currently taking triple my regular dose. Which means I'm chewing through my already dwindling supply three times faster than usual.

Just last week, I couldn't eat or stand up because my dosage was too low. And now I’m looking at my diminishing supply and seeing enough for two more weeks.


So, what’s happening?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) reports just shy of 400 medications being impacted by the current shortages. The steroid keeping me alive, Hydrocortisone, is only one of these essential drugs.

Others include liquid antibiotics, the kind used daily in children’s hospitals to protect our little ones from infection. Zoloft, a commonly used antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug is also in short supply, as well as some ADHD medications used in children. Among the scariest in the bunch is Warfarin, an anticoagulant used in the treatment of heart attacks and strokes.

The supply of these life-impacting and in many cases, life-saving drugs is limited, and it doesn’t make a difference whether or not you have access to private healthcare, they’re simply not available until further notice. But what’s more concerning is that these shortages are likely to be ongoing.

Listen to Mia Freedman interview broadcaster Jacinta Parsons about her invisible illness on No Filter. Story continues below. 

I spoke to Mark Dunsdon, Head Pharmacist and co-founder of SimpleDose about what’s behind the shortages.

“No one is safe," he told me. “The shortages are indiscriminate, almost every health condition is being affected by them. The industry as a whole is experiencing a post-COVID hangover, and the supply chain is still playing catch up.”


As soon as I hear the words supply chain issues, I immediately picture the Ever Given sat sideways in the Suez Canal but, unsurprisingly, there’s a bit more to it than that. The constraints COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions placed on production and transportation of goods have left many industries struggling to catch up. Add to that natural disasters and political unrest and you have a perfect storm for supply chain chaos.

“Even though we're seeing supplies of packaging much easier to get our hands on, the supply of raw ingredients is still unpredictable post-COVID.” Dunsdon explains.

By now we know the toll that COVID has taken on our healthcare system is far-reaching, and clearly something needs to change, but what can be done to protect our access to life-saving medication?

Well, we can shore up our capability to manufacture essential medication on shore – but Dunsdon says we’re about to come up against a new potential threat.

“To add insult to injury, a new 60-day policy is being considered by the government, which will seriously exacerbate the issue of drug shortages.” He explains. The proposal could mean that some people will have access to more medication than they actually need and more people will be forced to miss out. 

“This policy proposes to increase the current one-month supply to a two-month supply for patients who are already struggling to secure vital medications. It will apply to over 300 medications currently listed on the PBS, causing not only a supply chain issue that hasn't been fixed yet, but also a dosage compliance and potential drug wastage issue," Dunsdon tells me. 


On what felt like my 600th chemist visit this afternoon, I managed to get my hands on a precious bottle of my medication. But that doesn’t mean I can sit back and relax. Right now, none of us can. We have to make sure we’re covered for what’s next.

Dunsdon has some advice for those of us whose lives are being impacted by the crisis. “Be prepared.” He warns, “Plan your dosage in advance and consult with your pharmacist on availability of alternatives so that you're equipped if and when you need to consult your GP. Don't wait until the last pill to get organised.”

When I got my hands on that little bottle this afternoon, I felt my lungs empty, and my shoulders drop from their posts up near my ears – I hadn’t quite realised what I was holding onto.

So, if you’re out there, like me, on a never-ending chemist crawl, feeling scared and vulnerable, remember that you’re not alone. Know that it will get better, and most of all, remember to breathe out.

Hannah Vanderheide is an actor, writer, and presenter. 

Images: Supplied.

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