Acne: Worst Case Scenario

Excerpt from “72 Scars”  Evergreen Review.

Technically speaking, Scar #1 began in 1971 and lasted well into the 1980s. Like many teenagers, I had acne, but unlike many teenagers, I had the worst case any doctor had ever seen. The only thing to compare it to is Charles Bukowski’s description in Ham on Rye. It started out innocently enough. My dad would drive me to Dr. Fried in Englewood, NJ every Saturday of my freshman year. The treatment would begin with a 30 second x-ray radiation treatment of the afflicted areas and then Dr. Fried would take out a dermatological instrument and go to work squeezing the pimples on my face and back. What I did not know was that Dr. Fried would use the same instrument on all his patients. Within two months I developed a staph infection which resulted in general fatigue, but worse, scabby lesions all over my face, back and chest.

My parents talked about suing the dermatologist for malpractice, but never got around to it. Somehow I wound up being referred to the 5th Avenue offices of world famous dermatologist Dr. Norman Ohrentreich. Dr. Ohrentreich was famous for being the inventor of the hair transplant and his clients at the time included hockey player Bobby Hull, Frank Sinatra and U.S. Senator Joe Biden. But I wasn’t there for hair plugs, my case of acne/staph infection was so severe, that the good doctor agreed to take my case for free if he could photograph my face and body to illustrate a series of articles for medical journals about the aggressive treatment of acne. You know the saying; publish or perish. My malady included huge boils erupting on an almost daily basis. I’m not talking about your garden variety pimple, but cysts that would spring up between my eyes or on the side of my jaw and disfigure the shape of my face. My torso was so ravaged that my friend Rusty affectionately called me PB for pizza back. The aggressive treatment included large doses of the steroid prednisone and the lancing of each individual boil with a scalpel, or lancet as it was called. This treatment (free though it was) went on for the next decade though high school and college.

Did I mention that the treatment hurt like hell? Sometimes the doctor, or one of his associates had the honor, but usually this regrettable task fell to one of the nurses. In the name of accuracy, I must point out that the Ohrentreich Medical Group had more than its fair share of young pretty nurses. Often, fantasy was the tool of choice for getting through the treatment. I would pretend that I was a captured American pilot being tortured by my nazi captors, but I was loyal to the end never giving any more information than my name, rank and serial number. Of course my mind often wandered off task and I wondered if the nurse would mind at all if I slid my hand up her miniskirted uniform as she jabbed me with a scalpel. It seemed well within the bounds of reason and fairness. If she simply shed her uniform and lanced my wounds in bra and panties, it definitely would have gone smoother. I think.

One Saturday, Melissa who was my favorite nurse, remarked to one of her assistants, ”Note this in the report, ‘patient has low pain threshold.’” This was the unkindest cut of all. First of all, I had spent the better part of two years worth of Saturdays in an intimate state of undress, pain, and arousal with her and she damn well knew my name. Secondly, it really did hurt. The scabs were so thoroughly infected that it would have bordered on intolerable had Melissa touched them with a feather. After this, the doctor came up with a new line of attack: freeze the boils with liquid nitrogen administered in a stumpy syringe (minus the needle) before lancing them. Believe me, the liquid nitrogen was no improvement. It felt as if someone was putting a cigarette out all over my face and body. This treatment went on for years, and a quick look at my face will show the results. To this day. I use beauty products designed for women to minimize the appearance of scarring on my face. It could have been worse. I guess.

I broke up with, no, my girlfriend in college broke up with me because I refused to take my shirt off while we were going at it. I thought she wouldn’t want to touch me if she saw the extent of the scarring. Nowadays, if someone comments on my scars, I’ll often say something like “there was a fire when I was 15, I don’t want to talk about it.” This works pretty well because a) I don’t have to talk about it, and b) it adds an aura of mystery to a rather mundane set of circumstances.


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