Under My Skin

Reports of my departure are premature



Busy day at the office. Five different people asked when I plan to retire.

Dennis was first. I last saw him a year ago, as I’d been doing annually for 25 years. A few months later, he asked to have his records sent to his home. There was no obvious reason. Now he was back.

“I had an eventful year, medically,” he said. “You know, that biopsy you did on my nose was precancerous.”

I did know that. I had called him with the results. It was an actinic keratosis. I’d asked him to come back in a few months for me to recheck the area.

“I went to see another doctor,” he said. “He gave me a cream that made my skin turn red. I think it worked.”

It must have. After all, the keratosis had already been removed.

“But I didn’t like his office,” said Dennis, “so I decided to come back to you.”

Touching, I thought. “Nice to see you,” I said.

“I wanted a younger doctor,” said Dennis. “Someone who would be around for a while.”

“Well, I’m not planning to retire just yet.”

“Everyone retires eventually,” said Dennis.

“Yes,” I agreed. “I guess they do. See you next year.” Perhaps.

Well, that felt pretty good. Then I went in to see Phil.

“Good morning,” he said. “Are you thinking about retiring?”

“Not really,” I said.

“How old are you?” asked Phil.

“68,” I said.

Phil took a long look at me. “You look good,” he decided.

You don’t have to sound so surprised, I thought.

An hour later I saw Emma.

“I see you haven’t retired yet,” she said.

“No,” I replied. “It seems I haven’t. Would you like me to?”

“Oh, no!” said Emma. “I was just wondering. A lot of my doctors have been retiring.”

There it was. Fear of abandonment. Who will be there for me? I wanted to hold Emma’s hand and assure her that when the time came, someone would indeed be there for her when I wasn’t. But I didn’t. Like grown children, patients have to find out things like that for themselves.

A little later Mabel came by. Her rash was worrying her. “I saw a couple of doctors about it, but they didn’t seem to know what it was,” she said.

“It’s eczema,” I told her. “This is what I suggest you do.” I made some suggestions.

“I was here once before,” she said, “in the 80s. Then, when I couldn’t figure out what this rash I have was, I remembered your name. ‘No,’ I thought to myself. ‘He couldn’t possibly still be practicing.’ And then I found out that you were!”

Well, there you go.

This kind of thing can give you a complex. If so many people are surprised that you’re around, maybe you shouldn’t be. But the best was yet to come.

The last patient of the day was Jenna.

I introduced myself. “How did you get my name?” I asked. Nowadays, the most common answer I get goes something like, “I Googled you. I recognized your address and you got decent reviews.”

But Jenna answered, “My sister came here 10 years ago. She used to be a patient of Dr. Alvin Sherwin.”

“I took over Dr. Sherwin’s practice when he moved to Florida,” I told her. “That was in 1981, so it’s closer to 35 years ago, not 10.”

“My goodness,” she said. “That explains what my sister said.”

“What did your sister say?”

“Well, my mother found your name on a piece of paper. My mother likes to hold onto things.”

“I’ll say she does,” I said.

“My mother said, ‘Why don’t you call this guy Rockoff? He took care of your sister. He’s very good.’ So I looked you up and found your office.

“Anyway,” Jenna went on, “when I told my sister that I found you, she said, ‘Yes, I remember seeing him. You mean he’s still around? After all these years, I figured he was probably dead.’ ”

“Nope,” I said. “Not yet.”

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.

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