WSU pharmacist creates a haven for Ukrainian refugees

Sixth Avenue Pharmacy, located in the heart of Spokane’s health care hub, reflects the monumental development the city has undergone over the last two decades. The former QualMed Plaza, which houses the nearly 60-year-old pharmacy, has laid vacant for 50 years. The medical building is now being renovated into high-rise luxury apartments touting amenities such as a dog spa and a rooftop sky lounge. Yet, Sixth Avenue Pharmacy has stood the test of time since it opened its doors in 1964. The frenzy of construction outside mirrors the frenetic pharmacy inside where roughly a dozen employees busily fill prescriptions, compound tailor-made medicines, and prepare orders ready to be shipped out to long-term care facilities and clients.

“Living and working in a smaller city like Spokane is more rewarding than bigger cities because you are really part of the community and you can work to your full potential,” said Sixth Avenue Pharmacy co-owner Alex Heyfetz, who grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from the WSU doctor of pharmacy program in 2014. He and his wife have lived in the Inland Northwest since he began pharmacy school at WSU in 2010. Prior to attending WSU, Alex completed his bachelor’s degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at UCLA and says that he chose WSU’s PharmD program because it had all the resources and opportunities California schools offered, but at a much more affordable price.

Alex Heyfetz and his wife Ella Kotelovich have been working with the influx of Ukrainian refugees who have relocated to eastern Washington since Russia’s invasion of the country began in February 2022.

“I’m very happy with the choice I made. Not only did I get a better education but I also felt there were more resources available to me in the community,” said Alex who co-owns the pharmacy with college alum Erik Nelson, who graduated in 2013 and took over the business that same year. Over the years, Sixth Avenue Pharmacy has evolved to meet the demands of their clients, with automated dispensing machines, custom compounding, veterinary compounding, and specialty packaging. But one thing remains the same: patient care and serving the community is at the center of their business model. Alex says that as an independent pharmacy, Sixth Avenue Pharmacy can provide a more individualized approach with their patients to counsel them on their therapies. Glowing reviews on Google testify to the customer service that the pharmacy provides. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Spokesman Review featured the pharmacy and their ability to react quickly with unprecedented supply chain disruptions.

Alex Heyfetz, pictured here with the staff at Sixth Avenue Pharmacy, says he wants to expand services to help underrepresented populations in the eastern Washington. Currently he is working with a resident to expand Spanish-speaking services.

Alex says that the next phase of growth for the pharmacy is reaching out to underrepresented and vulnerable populations such as refugees and new immigrants in the Spokane area. He and his wife Ella Kotelovich are now paying it forward by helping the influx of Ukrainian refugees who started arriving to Spokane in early June following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February earlier this year. Ella, an account manager for Community Health Plan of Washington, has been working with both Ukrainian and Russian refugees who have resettled in Spokane. Ella who grew up in Latvia before her family moved to Los Angeles in 2003 says that there was a need for Russian-speaking health care providers, and Sixth Avenue Pharmacy naturally stepped up to fulfill this need. Alex, a certified medical interpreter for Russian speakers, has been translating for the Russian-speaking population in Spokane. He says that though Ukraine has its own language, Russian has been the default language as many relocating to the region also understand it. As a Russian refugee with grandparents from Ukraine, he is sensitive to the cultural nuances that many Ukrainian refugee families face once they arrive in the US.

“There is a lot of stigma surrounding behavioral health in former Soviet Union countries. I hope that by counseling these families and being able to speak to them in their own language, it will help them to seek the therapies they need,” said Alex, who said his family left Russia in 2000 when he was 15 years old to escape persecution as Jews. “At the very least, we can help them find the care that they need.”

Alex, who precepts WSU doctor of pharmacy students every year, and currently employs four interns and one resident at the pharmacy, says that he hopes to get the word out that Sixth Avenue Pharmacy is a place where immigrants and refugees can turn to if they need help translating medical advice, have questions, or just need a medical provider to speak in their own language.

“I want our patients to know that as pharmacists we tend to have better rapport with patients than medical doctors do since they don’t have to make an appointment to see us for advice. We can point people in the right direction if they need to seek care, or counsel them on their medications,” said Alex.

His current resident, Jolyslene Robles Mendoza, who graduated from WSU in 2022, is a resident at Sixth Avenue and has been working with Alex to engage Spanish-speaking populations. Alex has been mentoring Jolyslene on how to do community outreach events and roll out vaccination clinics for underrepresented populations. The 2020 Preceptor of the Year recipient says that he tries to instill in his students that pharmacists are highly educated and valuable members of a health care team. It’s important to play a bigger part in helping the communities that they serve.

“The biggest highlight for me as a pharmacist is being able to work with students and the next generation of pharmacists,” said Alex. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me.”