Under My Skin




Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that entered American English, joining bagel and nosh. The usual translations of chutzpah – “nerve” or “effrontery” – are correct enough, but leave out the zest implied by chutzpah’s classic case: a man who kills his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

We all meet patients with chutzpah, which can be amusing, impressive – even breathtaking.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Take for instance the woman who paged me one evening last month. “I visit your nurse for cosmetic stuff,” she said when I called her back. “Your prices for laser hair removal were high, though, so I went to a spa where I could use a Groupon.”

How nice, I thought.

“Anyhow,” she continued, “I went for a treatment at the spa today, and now I have little red bumps all over my thighs. I thought it might be a reaction, and since you are my dermatologist I called to ask what to do.”

Good to be needed.

Then the next week I got another call, this time from a man I hadn’t seen in a long time. “I really like you as a dermatologist,” he began.

“Thank you,” I murmured.

“I saw this spot on my leg that worried me,” he said. “I was going to show it to you, but your office is in an old building, and old buildings don’t agree with me.”

As I scratched my head, he went on. “So I went to another dermatologist who works in a newer building. He did a biopsy and told me I have skin cancer. He said I should have surgery to take it off. I consider you my dermatologist, though, so I called to ask whether you think surgery is a good idea.”

I said I thought it was. I did not add that he should look for an old surgeon in a new building.

These patients are fresh in my mind, but it doesn’t take much effort to come up with others.

“Mr. Skillman wants a refill on his steroid cream,” says my secretary.

“Sure,” I tell her. “E-scribe it over.”

“No,” she says. “He wants a hard copy mailed to him.”

“Does he have one of those mail order pharmacies that requires a written script?”


“But it’s so much simpler to call it in or do it by computer. Why does he have to have a hard copy?”

“I don’t know. But he insists on having one.”

I could go on and on. So could you, I’m sure.

When confronted with chutzpah, you have two options: challenge the person showing it and refuse to go along with his demands, or just sigh, comply, and move on. In general, I go with option #2.

First of all, anyone pushy enough to act this way will not react well to being pushed back. (“What’s your problem? Are you too busy to write a prescription? Too stingy to mail it?”)

Second, and perhaps more to the point, many people who display chutzpah don’t know that’s what they are doing. The woman who went for laser at the Groupon spa really has no idea I’d think it odd for her to call me about a complication instead of the spa personnel who lasered her legs. On some level, she figures that they probably don’t know (look how cheap they are), and thinks I should be flattered to be asked. After all, I’m her dermatologist.

Some people with chutzpah are aggressive and difficult and don’t care if they’re being offensive. A lot more are just clueless. The fellow who bores the daylights out of everyone at dinner parties with long, pointless stories doesn’t know he’s being tedious. He just doesn’t pick up social cues.

Most patients, like most people, are polite and deferential. The rest, though, are more memorable.

My building is indeed old. One hundred years ago it was the swankiest apartment house around. Every flat had rooms for a butler, a maid, and a chauffeur for their Packard motorcar. Then the builder went belly-up during the Depression, and the new owner converted it to medical offices. Downward mobility works for me.

Faced with chutzpah, I shrug, smile, and get on with it. Enough people can still tolerate old buildings, and old dermatologists.

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. Write to him at dermnews@frontlinemedcom.com.

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