From Skin Check to Confession

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma and after a biopsy and surgery I fell into the routine of regular full body skin checks or scans. My “melanoma check” was a bit over a week ago on a Friday.  I had my day all planned. I would go to my appointment, then pick up a cup of coffee, and then head to meet Father Patrick for confession.

As I waited at the desk of the receptionist I looked around me. It was early in the morning but already the waiting area was full. Every age, every color, every size, every gender, every income level.

I quickly checked in and looked around again. There was the teenager, his face scarred with acne, a mom hovering beside him dancing the awkward dance of concern and nonchalance. If scars could speak they would probably tell a story of merciless teasing by clear-skinned kids who knew how to make life miserable for one who already suffered. There was the older couple, he with a bandage over a part of his face, perhaps a result of skin surgery. And there were so many more, all of us with our imperfect skin, there to be checked over by a specialist who knew just which imperfections we should be worried about.

This yearly visit is fairly painless other than the humbling experience of having my naked body in all its wrinkled, spotted glory fully exposed to fine specimens of young male residents (where are the females in dermatology I ask you?) A resident goes over my body with a magnifying glass. Anything suspicious they swab with alcohol and take a closer look. All the while they are talking to me and asking me questions about my skin. Do you wear sunscreen? Any history of cancer? Any history of melanoma or other skin diseases? And then statements – Ah – looks like you didn’t wear sunscreen here! It’s a bit like a dentist asking me if I floss.

All I am to these physicians is a body with a skin disease. Nothing else. I am not a wife or a mom; an employee or a friend; a nurse or a trainer; most certainly not an author. It’s immaterial to them – what matters is my body, separate from my soul, my heart, and my mind. The Big Doctor comes into the room toward the end of the visit and the residents are clearly in slight awe of him. He talks about me in the third person and turns out the lights holding a black light over my leg, focusing on the four-inch diagonal scar where the melanoma first presented. See he says see you can really visualize all her sun spots here. This is called “solar lentigo” he launches into the technical name for the white sunspots that are now gleaming like stars in a dark night on my skin. For a moment I separate myself from my body as well and look down on my legs like they are a foreign thing, unattached to my person.

And then we’re done. All set. No need to come back for another year unless you see something that is cause for concern. Out the entourage goes. The residents (who incidentally looked like they were 12 years old) off to check another body.

And as I began dressing I thought about where I was going next and the juxtaposition of these two visits. From skin checks to confession. One interested only in my body, the other primarily interested in my soul, yet cognizant of the role body, soul, and spirit play in our personhood. One concerned only at that moment, the memory of my skin fading as quickly as a door closing and opening to the next patient; the other concerned on an ongoing basis – concerned with my outward roles as mom, wife, and more, but more so my inner being – my soul.

At the first visit a resident is equipped with a magnifying glass and a black light, at the second there will be no magnifying glass other than the eyes of God, there will be no black light, there will be no talk about me in the third person. It is my choice to reveal that which I want to reveal.

I am leaving a place where I am a specimen and entering a space where, as a human being created in the image of God, I have inherent worth. At one there is a Big Doctor, a specialist known worldwide, his residents trying to please at every turn.At the other – a priest relies on the Great Physician, the one who heals body and soul.The contrast has me shaking my head in consternation and amazement.

From skin check to confession. Both important but one infinitely more so. I check out of the office leaving with an appointment scheduled a year away and head to confession. My body is okay. My soul still needs checking.

13 thoughts on “From Skin Check to Confession

  1. This was an amazing article to read. I hope you’re doing alright :) As a medicine student, I find this quite a relevant read. Doctors tread a fine line in the sense that they have to treat the patient as a person and not just a house for the disease but most tend to get quite desensitized after a while, without even realizing it. Even now with my limited interactions with patients I sometimes tune out personal details and concentrate just on their disease. This was a bit of an eye-opener so thank you for that; I’m going to try to be a little less impersonal and not treat patients like they’re just specimens of disease. Also you write really well :)

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  2. Marilyn,
    I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoy your writings. Your huge heart comes through every time. There is always warmth, sensitivity and caring in the things you write about. You THINK about things and that is what makes your writing so appealing and interesting to me. Please, don’t ever stop sharing your heart with all of us. I, for one, really appreciate you as I know many others do as well.

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  3. Ah, I miss my former Dr. Julie. She was also pcp to an older friend of ours, and when Clarissa turned 100, that Dr. made house calls not a few miles out of town. In 2 years living here in Rochester, I have started with a second new Dr. not my choice but the first one moved away.
    So thankful for you Marilyn, that you and Cliff have such a special priest and confessor. (Is that the right title??) I hope we can meet him one of these days.

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    1. Mom – thank you so much! And yes – praise. And we are thankful for Fr Patrick. Priests, like pastors, are not all created equal. Thanks for letting me share the story of your primary care doctor!

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  4. This post was timely in that I just attended a two-day Be in Health conference. This ministry focuses on the spirit-soul-body connection and exposes what 80% of illness is at its root: a breach of relationship. Neuroscience is finally catching up with the Bible! I’m a nurse, too, so the comment above was very relevant. My own doctor is like your mom’s — I worry that she spends too long with me. Then she tells me, “It’s okay, you’re special…” Aren’t those words in themselves a healing balm?? Say that to someone today!

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  5. Both are places of raw vulnerability. … I’m glad your skin is fine. …I pray your soul is too. You’ve been exposed to a lot this year.

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    1. So interesting – i hadn’t picked up on that. But yes – both are places where you are exposed, “raw vulnerability” is right. Thanks as always for your insight Robynn

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  6. As a physician-in-training, I’m trying to understand what could have been done differently to have made you feel as though these residents and attendings cared more about you as a person, as a soul, as a wife and mother and employee and author and all of the things that make you you, and less as a specimen. Is there anything you can share with me, so that I can do my part to change the culture of medicine to prevent this sort of patient experience?

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    1. I want to reach through cyberspace and hug you for this comment Allie – thank you. Thank you for being who you are and for becoming a physician! So I think there are a few things – one is the specialty area. I’ve certainly had amazing experiences where I am seen as one of value. I think the Big Doctor’s talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room was at the heart of feeling like a specimen. And perhaps because other residents in this same practice had been so different in the past and truly interested. Perhaps the higher one goes in the hierarchy, the more removed they are from real people, real patients. My mom talked about her primary care doc at one point. She said she was such an active listener that my mom thought she was there for a half hour or more. When she left, my mom looked at her watch and realized the doctor had only been there 10 minutes. The difference was how focused she was in that 10 minutes. The other thing – and I know this being a nurse – we all have off days. There are times when it’s hard to give. So that’s my short answer but thank you for wanting to engage in this!

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