I had been living in Indianapolis for almost seven months before I finally called a dermatologist. I hadn’t wanted to get a new doctor – I dreaded the paperwork, the waiting in sterile reception rooms and – for the first time – taking time off from work that I had only just started to accumulate. But from day one, my parents had drilled into my mind the importance of annual check-ups. Still, I ignored the helpful information my new health insurance provider sent weekly in the mail and wrote down the names of doctors recommended by co-workers, friends and family only to promptly lose the pieces of paper.
Finally, after a guilt trip to go to the doctor worked on my boyfriend, he kindly noted that my grace period was up – it was time to go to the doctor.
I left the dermatologist for last. After a melanoma scare at a very young age, I’d avoided dermatologists. Even the pimples that spread across my face and back in high school couldn’t make me change my mind. Several moles were removed either through freezing or surgery only to find they were perfectly normal – an incredibly happy and lucky result, but the experience left scars that were more than skin deep. At 10 years old, I told my parents no more skin doctors. Ever. They respected my wishes as long as I promised to keep an eye on my skin. I promised.
But at 24, I knew it was time. And it was the smart thing to do. I liked to skimp on the sunscreen at the beach. I stayed out too long in the sun, marveling at how quickly my skin turned bronze in the heat. No one’s perfect – scars and all – and I definitely needed to get a few spots checked out. I’d been ignoring the black spots for a while because they looked exactly like the ones I’d had removed in surgery 14 years ago. Which was stupid. So I went to the dermatologist my family and friends recommended – a young woman who I thought 5 minutes into my appointment lived up to her reputation in town. She was thorough, knew the latest studies and treatments and – since I was a new patient – took her time going over my chart and my skin. I waited patiently for her to get to my family history, ready with my answer that over time has become as easy and simple to say as my full name.
“Wait, you didn’t fill out your family history,” she said.
“I’m adopted, so I don’t have the requested information about my family history,” I said.
“Tell me more about these moles that were removed…. and why a doctor took them off you when you were just a child!”
The disgust and aversion in her voice surprised me. I explained that several moles were removed in 1995, pointing to the tiny circular scars on my legs and feet.
“I would never, never, never do that to a child or ever presume to think it was melanoma at your age or cut them all off before taking a biopsy of one.” She spit the words out like they were shards of glass in her mouth.
“They said it could be melanoma – I don’t know why precisely, but I could have the paperwork faxed to you –”
She cut me off. “Are your parents Caucasian?”
That caught me more off guard than the shrill shock in her voice.
“Yes,” I said uneasily.
“Well that makes sense. They don’t know what’s normal for dark skinned girls.” She pointed at me and then herself.
I opened my mouth. And then closed it.
“Yes,” she said almost more to herself than to me. “They don’t know anything about that.”
I didn’t think I could feel more uncomfortable behind the paper thin hospital gown, but the flush of anger soaked through my skin. I felt my heart pounding against my closed lips, but I fought back the words I wanted to say and tried to concentrate on slowing my heartbeat.
Later that day, I told my parents what the dermatologist had said about my surgery. I left out the part about skin color, but their voices were already as high and upset as hers had been. What do you mean they shouldn’t have done it? We asked all the right questions. We made sure that they’d done all the research. We did all the research we could. We asked for more opinions. They scared us so badly. We’re so sorry. We were so scared. So, so sorry.
That’s crazy, I said to them. No reason to be sorry. We did what we thought was right at the time and it all ended up fine. It’s all done now and nothing is wrong with my skin. I said nothing of the doctor’s comments – her accusation. We all calmed down and were soon laughing about a Today Show segment or a part of my life in a new town.
I want to say that I understand why the dermatologist said my parents wouldn’t understand, but I don’t. She put a traumatic and – in her opinion – poorly diagnosed experience on the shoulders of two parents who did more than enough to ensure what happened to me was safe. Skin color has nothing to do with it. I felt her assertion came from ignorance – a strong statement, perhaps, but I couldn’t help but take it personally. I would argue that even if my parents were Samoan, everyone’s skin is so different and dark marks that appear after after years of exposure to the sun should be checked out.
It has been a week since my appointment, but I’m still kicking myself for not voicing how I felt. That it’s not their white skin that caused the surgeries. That to imply such a statement is inane. But years of turning the other cheek, looking the other way, giving people the benefit of the doubt and refraining from pointing out what I think they are missing because I don’t want to overreact or make someone feel bad has made me soft. No, not soft – silent.
But, really, what are words? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words…. Words are just words.