‘Never give up,’ a pharmacist’s journey through COVID-19

Walking through the pharmacy in the basement of the Martin Luther King Community Healthcare (MLKCH), Nubar Petikyan stops to point out a patch of empty floor space in front of orderly shelves of pharmaceuticals.

“That’s where we had our ‘COVID mountain,’” says Nubar, the pharmacy’s manager. The mountain he recalls was a stockpile of the many drugs necessary to help patients fight for their lives during the winter surge in cases—remdesivir, propofol, many others.

“At the time, the entire hospital was a critical care unit,” he says. With patient volume almost doubled and hospital staff seeing greater numbers of severe illnesses, the pharmacy’s stockpile was just one more sign of the extraordinary times.

Nubar, though, recalls that period as one that reaffirmed his calling not only to working in critical care settings, but to the community of South LA.


Born in Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed, Nubar immigrated with his parents to the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles when he was just two years old.  An only child, he grew up in a tight-knit Armenian community and was close with his grandparents.

His interest in science and chemistry was lifelong, so the decision to pursue pharmacy came naturally. “It was either going to be a PhD in chemistry or a PharmD.  I chose pharmacy because I wanted to be directly involved with patient care,” says Nubar.

After graduate studies in San Diego, he found a way to return to his hometown as a pharmacy intern at MLKCH in May 2015, shortly before the hospital opened to patients.  South Los Angeles, with its many immigrant families, reminded him of where he’d grown up. He began as the ICU pharmacist, working closely with doctors and nurses to keep the most critically ill and injured patients alive.

“It’s such a high-pressure, high-stakes environment. You develop a real trust with the people you’re working with. It’s like a family,” says Nubar.

Nubar Petikyan

The foundation of trust that the team had spent years building became crucial during the pandemic, when South LA experienced some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. Information about the disease and which drugs were effective against it could change minute by minute, so Nubar threw himself into learning how to best give patients a fighting chance.

 “I was reading, listening to every possible podcast that came out of the CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention]. This was after hours, on the weekends. My wife said, ‘I feel like I haven’t seen you in months,’ but at the same time, she respected that I was making an impact, making a difference,” he recalls.

He helped to bring potentially life-saving investigational drugs to the hospital, approved for use only in times of major crisis. “We’re not a teaching hospital. We don’t have an institutional review board. We’re a small community hospital. But what was going through our minds was—how do we save as many people as we possibly can? That’s all.”

With the support of hospital leadership, any patient who met the criteria for an investigational drug—whether that was remdesivir, an antiviral medication that helps reduce patients’ viral load counts, or monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that helps certain patients reduce the chance of hospitalization—received the treatment.

“I didn’t have to worry about getting a call asking about all the drugs we were buying, because what was important was serving patients.  This hospital understands that,” says Nubar. “We didn’t have to make those tough calls of giving treatment to one person and not another.”             

In December 2020, COVID hit even closer to home. Several of his family members contracted the illness. First his mother became sick, then his grandparents. On Christmas Eve, his grandfather was hospitalized at Hollywood Presbyterian.

“Fighting COVID—it became personal,” Nubar says. Nine days after his grandfather was hospitalized, he passed away.

“He was my best friend. He was the type of guy who said ‘leave everything you find better’ and ‘you have to fight, never give up.’ In his memory, I needed to keep fighting on.”

That first day of vaccinations was bittersweet. It was emotional, Nubar recalls, watching people in his grandfather’s age group receive vaccinations. But there was work to be done. New challenges presented themselves—storage, distribution, an entire public health campaign. Pharmacy staff worked closely with departments across MLKCH such as the population health team to ensure that as many staff and community members as possible received their vaccinations.    

The vaccines also signaled hope, and an opportunity for healing to begin in a community that had been through so much. Today, that COVID mountain of pharmaceuticals is gone, but the work of healing South LA remains. With MLKCH’s annual staff giving campaign around the corner, Nubar saw an opportunity to be a bigger part of that healing. He joined the MLKCH Gives leadership team in order to give back to the community that has given him so much.

“I feel like I grew up with this hospital,” Nubar says. “I know that this is the community where I can honor my grandfather and make an impact.”

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