Groundhog Day



Early in my career, an attorney asked me to review a malpractice case. “The question,” he said, “is whether liquid nitrogen is the standard of care for treating warts.”

Come again?

A young woman had visited an academic center, where a physician froze her warts. These blistered and turned purple. Alarmed, she went to an ER, where doctors admitted her for cellulitis and gave her intravenous antibiotics for several days.

I later submitted an essay based on this case to my malpractice insurer’s Risk Management Contest, in which I called for better communication between treating doctors and those who follow up. I placed second and got a check from my malpractice insurer. How cool is that?

I hadn’t thought about that case in years, until last month. Earvin is a late-middle-aged gent with psoriasis on his elbows and liver spots on his chest. He asked me to freeze them, as I had done before.

After lunch 2 days later, my secretary buzzed me. “The man on the phone is very unhappy,” she said. “He says he called this morning and no one called back. He says if he doesn’t hear from you, his next call will be to his attorney.”

I phoned Earvin. My apology for not having gotten the message before was met with frigid hostility. “That’s unconscionable,” he said.

“My skin swelled up like a balloon,” he told me. “I know what to expect with freezing, and this never happened before. I think this time you froze me with a heavy hand. When I didn’t hear from you, I went to an urgent care clinic down the street. They said it was infected and prescribed an antibiotic ointment. I had to wait an hour, and the ointment cost $49.”

I held my breath. “Actually,” I said, “I don’t think it’s infected.”

“They said it was infected,” said Earvin. “It is swollen. I’m afraid it is going to scar. The cream cost $49.”

Straining to keep my voice even, I replied, “Would you like me to have a look at it?”

“I live too far,” he said. “I don’t have a ride. Maybe I will come tomorrow if someone can take me.”

Later that day I called him back. “I live the next town over from you,” I said. “I will stop by on my way home.” He agreed, and told me the color of his house.

Earvin let me in looking less angry than fearful. One glance at his chest told me what I needed to know: There was no infection. His skin looked like what skin looks like after it’s been frozen. Other treated areas – the ones Earvin wasn’t worried about – looked the same to me, though clearly not to him. “This one was worse,” he said. “It’s gone down since this morning.”

After examining Earvin with my cell phone flashlight, I sat down across from him. “Let me be clear,” I said. “You are not infected. Some areas frozen at the same time in the same way blister more briskly than others. In the end they heal fine, and so will yours. You’re not going to scar.”

Earvin relaxed a little. “I was afraid I’d done something I didn’t need to. My mother had skin cancer on her chest, not far from where this one is. My skin was discolored and swollen. The doctor at urgent care said it was infected.” There was a pause, as Earvin slumped in his chair. “I feel better,” he allowed.

There it was, the whole package – thinking that was full of hopelessly muddled categories. Infection? Scarring? Skin cancer? Yes to all? And there was moral anxiety – disappointment in himself for doing something needless and now having to pay the price – as well as anger at me as the instrument of retribution. Who knows what else? There were so many strands, hopelessly coiled, impossible to disentangle.

And all wrapped up in elemental terror. What have I done? What has he done?

Earvin did not need treatment. He needed a hug. Metaphorically, that is what I gave him.

So much angst, so much anger, so much fear, so little time. To be frank, it gets tiring.

People like to quote the philosopher George Santayana. He said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I like to paraphrase the even greater philosopher Bill Murray of “Groundhog Day”: Those who do remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway.

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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