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Pharmacy in the Family: Ernie Ratzburg inspires great niece

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | May 16, 2024 12:00 AM

Newly minted pharmacist Madeline Hellinger recently worked side by side with her great uncle, Ernie Ratzburg – the longest-working pharmacist in Montana with 65 years beneath his crisp white jacket.

“I always thought Uncle Ernie was pretty cool in his white coat,” she said, watching him fill a prescription at Credena Health Pharmacy Lakeshore.

And her great uncle is clearly pleased with his protégé: “I'm very proud of this girl,” he said, noting that she’s both knowledgeable and a good communicator.

Not only is Hellinger inspired by her great uncle, she also appreciates the opportunity her new career provides to interact with, and educate people. “We’re a super accessible resource for patients,” she said. “They can come talk to us for free – I love that about it.”

Plus, says her great uncle, pharmacy pays well, offers lots of career opportunities, “and it's a very rewarding profession. It must be, because I'm 83 and I'm still working.”

Same career, 60 years apart

While the two chose the same vocation, they learned pharmacy in vastly different eras.

Ratzburg grew up in Polson and earned his degree from the University of Montana. He took 14 quarters of chemistry, and when he graduated was required to intern for a year.

“When we went to school, you didn't work in a hospital at all. And they didn't teach you any of the clinical stuff,” he recalled. “It's much more interactive today, and they have a lot more faith in pharmacists.”

Of course, computers weren’t available, so Ratzburg learned everything the old-fashioned way, with books and a typewriter as tools. Over the years, he’s had to learn and adapt to new technology and an ever-burgeoning array of medications.

“It’s a lot of work, but it's rewarding,” he says. “It's worth it.”

Hellinger attended Montana Tech for two years before transferring to the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at UM, and graduated May 10 with a doctorate. Pharmacy is “a tough program,” she says. “It's three years of taking pretty intense classes, learning all the medications, disease states of the body, dosing, interactions, all of that.”

The fourth year, which she’s completing now, involves eight clinical rotations of six weeks apiece. Hers began with an administrative rotation – “learning how to run a pharmacy” – at Northtown Drug in Shelby, the pharmacy where she worked during high school.

From there, she learned about ambulatory care at Tribal Health in St. Ignatius and at Grant Creek Family Medicine in Missoula. That’s a branch of pharmacy that involves providing medication management for patients with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes.

Next came her hospital and inpatient rotations at Logan Health in Kalispell, followed by an “awesome” six-week community elective in Scotland. “They have universal healthcare, so it was very different seeing how that operates and the processes there.”

Her final stint was the one that found her working side by side with her great uncle during a community rotation at Providence St. Joseph’s Credena Health Pharmacy in Polson.

Her observations? “He's still as sharp as ever,” she says. “I think his patient interaction is really outstanding – that’s something I hope to carry on.”

Ratzburg is easily Polson’s best-known pharmacist. After all, he’s been prescribing medications here since 1965, and is 10 credits into earning the 15 credits required to renew his license for another year.

“I thought this year was my last year. I really did,” he says. But his boss encouraged him to renew his license, citing the challenges of finding part-time pharmacists.

“The thing is, I still like it,” he said. “But I have plenty of time to do all the things I love to do, like golf. And I like to work in my yard, take care of my flowers. I like to fish and hunt.”

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1964, Ratzburg went to work at Western Montana Clinic and then Stoic Drug in Missoula before returning to his hometown to work at Eddie’s Drug. He eventually bought the business and ran it for 30 years before selling the pharmacy to Pamida, which subsequently sold it to Safeway. He worked for both before joining Providence St. Joseph 10 years ago.

He enjoys working with the hospital’s pharmacy and appreciates the respect pharmacists receive from physicians. It wasn’t always that way. He remembers getting scolded by a doctor early in his career for giving a patient advice on a medication they were taking.

“It's much more interactive now,” he says. “Like in the hospital, you actually get to help people and treat people … And the doctors call you and you give them advice. I like that.”

“We know more about drugs than most doctors,” he adds.

After graduation, Hellinger heads to Helena for a yearlong residency program at St. Peter's Health, and then plans to continue working in a hospital setting. She enjoys the mix of clinical practice and the challenge of analyzing patient profiles.

“You don't just read the script,” she says.

She hopes to eventually land closer to Polson, which is home to her grandparents, Dale and Doreen Ratzberg, her mom, Dana Hellinger, and of course, Great Uncle Ernie.

Asked what she’s learned from working with him, she replies, “just that joyous demeanor he has, and the patients love him. So obviously he's doing something right.”

“I love people. I know most of them. I know their kids and their grandpas,” Ernie says. “I’m blessed, and I'm very proud of this girl.”