Under My Skin

“I go by thickness”


On car trips with our kids, we used to listen to comedy tapes. (Cassette tapes. Look them up.) One of our favorite comics was Steven Wright, who made it to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (Google him.)

Dr. Alan Rockoff, a dermatologist in Brookline, Mass.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

Wright’s offbeat humor was quirky and a bit philosophical, and was delivered in a deadpan, mumbled monotone. For instance:

When I got to school, the teacher said, “The socks you’re wearing don’t match. They’re two different colors.”

I said, “I go by thickness.”

That punchline goes pop in your head, like a shy little firecracker: How come it never occurred to me to look at it that way?

I thought of Steven Wright recently while I was enrolling Stacy, a 20-year-old, in the iPledge program for a planned course of isotretinoin. Stacy told me she is sexually active and has an IUD.

“When you start the medicine next month,” I told her, “you’ll need to pick a second form of contraception.”

Stacy looked bewildered. When I’ve made that statement to a thousand previous patients, none of them ever looked bewildered.

“I mean,” I said, “besides the IUD, you’ll need to use a second type of contraception, to be sure you don’t get pregnant. You could choose condoms, or one of the other types listed in the booklet I gave you.”

That didn’t seem to help. Stacey hemmed a bit. “Does that mean I have to tell you ... ?”

“Yes, you have to pick another form of birth control and tell me which one it is.”

“I have to tell you every time?”

My go-by-thickness moment – I finally got it. “NO,” I said. “You do NOT have to tell me which second contraceptive you use every time you have sex!”

Steven Wright would be proud of Stacy. Isotretinoin came out in 1982, but nobody ever thought of “choose a second type of contraception” that way before. Stacy goes by retail.

That case reminded of another out-of-left field question I heard for the first – and only – time almost 40 years ago. I had prescribed a cream for a young man.

“Can I get it refilled?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“How do I refill it?” he asked.

“You take it back to the pharmacy, and they refill it for you,” I said.

“But how do they refill it?”

“You show them what you need, and they refill it.”

“But how?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?”

“The tube is going to be all scrunched up from my squeezing it,” he said. “How do they get the new cream back in?”

Well son of a gun, “refill” could mean that, couldn’t it? If you go by thickness.

In idle moments I like to let novel perspectives such as those roll around in my head. The other day I accompanied a relative to an emergency department. While waiting in triage for 5 hours, I looked up and saw a sign on the wall, in big, blue letters: “Support ED Research!”

That puzzled me. I know it can be an important problem, but why the dickens would someone come to an emergency department for erectile dysfunction?

I go by acronyms.

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. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at [email protected].

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