An Office Visit

by Ed Colby

I like to mound snow around my beehives for insulation, and this clear, bitter-cold January day would be a good day to do it. Unfortunately, I’m house-bound following my “blue light” treatment yesterday for the scabby little pre-cancerous lesions on my face and bald head.

I really don’t mind my bald head. My gal Marilyn still loves me, but that head does get cold, and pre-cancers pop up all the time on my scalp. I asked the dermatologist why. He said, “Because that’s where you’re getting a lot of sun exposure.”

This didn’t make sense, because for years I’ve never gone outside without some kind of a hat, and before that, I had hair. I put sunscreen on my face, but I never put any on top of my head. Why would I?

The light popped on when I noticed the ventilation holes in the mesh on top of my beekeeper pith helmet. Some sunshine gets in. Apparently those long hours in the beeyard added up. I could have put sunscreen on top of my head and maybe never gotten a sun-damaged pate, but it never occurred to me. I assumed my helmet protected me.

Skin doctors all emphasize that you should always put on sunscreen when you go outside, but they never warn you that scented sunscreen irritates honey bees and makes them want to sting you. You’d think they’d learn this in medical school textbooks in the chapter on sunscreen. But if you mention it to doctors, they look at you like you just stepped out of a flying saucer.

Marilyn had a melanoma removed from her arm last Summer. That’s the bad skin cancer. To me it looked like a big freckle. The visiting Mt. Sinai doctors at a free skin cancer screening last Summer in Aspen found it. The whole team gathered around and poked and stared. Then, remarkably, one of the docs took Marilyn under her wing. She counseled first and foremost quick removal. She gave Marilyn her card and said she’d be her advisor and advocate. When the local health care system more or less broke down with delays, insurance hang-ups, and scheduling problems, Marilyn’s guardian angel made phone calls and wrote e-mails. She even offered to remove the melanoma herself – for free – if Marilyn visited her in her office in New York. As weeks turned into months, Marilyn mulled over her offer.

Marilyn didn’t have to get on a plane, after all. It ended well, with two surgeries and a three-inch gash on her arm. She healed very nicely, thank you, and on a follow-up visit blurted out to her surgeon that she used honey as a wound salve. “I didn’t hear that!” her doctor retorted.

Honey – nature’s miracle healing agent. Don’t they teach that in medical school?

As for me, I switched dermatologists. The one I went to before was nearing retirement. Maybe his eyes were failing. He used liquid nitrogen to freeze pre-cancerous lesions. On my last visit a few years ago, he looked over my face, froze a couple of spots, and said, “You’re good to go!”

I was his last patient of the day. I’d already left his office when I thought, “How about the top of my head?” I marched back in and said, “Take another look.” He pulled out his nitrogen blaster and froze another dozen spots, right there in the waiting room.

My pert young new doctor takes Medicare. And she’s married to a beekeeper. Good for her! She’d still never heard about scented sunscreen and angry bees.

This Mary Poppins of dermatology loves her job. She loves helping people! No old-fashioned liquid nitrogen for her! She won’t sit still. She dances around the room as she outlines the latest in high-tech treatment options. Yesterday I held my breath as her nurse washed my face and scalp with acetone, then smeared aminolevulinic acid cream on my skin. The acid binds with pre-cancers, creating a light sensitive chemical. Next she bombarded my face and scalp with blue light for an hour, thus (hopefully) destroying those lesions.

Today I feel acid-burned. My take-home instructions said to moisten my skin with Vaseline, but instead I used a 50/50 mixture of honey and Aquaphor, a healing ointment. I’ll be fine.

My dad played a lot of tennis back before sunscreen got invented. Surgeons cut a melanoma out of his nose before he turned 60. I worked as a lifeguard that Summer, and my goal was to get as bronzed as possible. I sat in that lifeguard chair with no hat and no sunscreen, even though sunscreen by then was on the market. I did still have a head of hair. Dad warned me, but I had the good sense of a teenager. Now I look back and wonder.

Be careful out there in the beeyard. You might feel like you’re in the shade under that hat and veil, when you’re really not. Like miles on a car, the sun takes its toll. With luck, one day you’ll wake up and be as old as I am. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.