In dermatology, we are fortunate to have many insightful practitioners and great teachers and mentors. Some are bright stars in our special universe — others unsung heroes. All of these colleagues have much to share from wisdom to humor to insights into dermatology and life. This column allows us to gain insight from these practitioners and learn more about them.
Q. What part of your work gives you the most pleasure?
A. I love being around babies and children all day. I get the best hugs without even asking — what could be better? Intellectually, there is never a boring day, and I am privy to fascinating stories and circumstances. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to make a difference in a child’s life. And I never have to grow up.
Q. Which patient had the most effect on your work and why?
A. There are a lot of patients I will always remember. When I was a pediatric resident, a 14-year-old boy presented with generalized morphea, fatigue and weight loss. He was found to have a rare leukemia with hemophagocytic lymphohistocytosis. He slowly died on our service. I have so many memories of him, the family and the funeral; it feels like yesterday. Some patients always stay with you. The second was a teenage boy from an immigrant family. He presented with a generalized morbilliform eruption, sweating, weakness, no fever, but he had a few loose teeth. Specialists came and went. He got a million dollar work up. No diagnosis. One morning after rounds, one of my attendings, not long out of residency, quietly said, “What we need is more thinking and less testing.” She went home and hit the books. (Back then, there was no Internet, and Medline was a quarterly mail order service.) At rounds the next morning she said, “I think it’s mercury poisoning.” Well, she was right. Turns out the family had large amounts of mercury at home related to cultural healing practices and the children were playing with it. The house was so contaminated that it was condemned. I was so impressed by that young attending and how she solved the case. I saw firsthand the limits of technology contrasted with the power of good medical judgment. Lastly, the patient I get asked about the most is the little boy with anthrax infection who I took care of when I was on faculty at NYU. The whole experience was a crash course in bioterrorism, infectious diseases and public relations. The highly public nature of this case brought out some interesting responses in other physicians, administrators and the media. I was lucky that Seth Orlow and Irwin Freedberg were 100% supportive, as I tried my best to do what was right. I was not interested in milking the situation for fame. Thinking of this patient brings back memories about 9/11. We lived in NYU faculty housing and were constantly immersed in the fall out of 9/11 for a long, long time. It was a really challenging time. I had a toddler, was very pregnant with my second child and working full time. My husband worked across the street from that third World Trade Center building that fell; I almost lost him.
Q. What is your greatest regret?
A. I don’t harbor regrets anymore. My life has taken a lot of twists and turns, but it keeps getting better. I think if I had to do it over again, I would have spoken up more, connected to others more, and believed in myself more when I was younger. I used to always feel like a square peg in a round hole, and I was shy. When I started losing my hearing as a young adult, that made things even harder. I had to figure out how to cope with an “invisible” disability. Now that I’m older, I really appreciate and enjoy differences in people, including myself.
Q. Who was your hero/mentor and why?
B>A. My parents are my heroes. They emigrated from Taiwan with nothing, and I owe everything to them. My mother is an amazing woman. She raised four kids and ran a business. She went back to finish college when we were grown, and recently, despite never smoking, battled lung cancer and is doing well. She taught me how to work hard, to endure, and she taught me that you never, ever stop learning. My father, a philosophy professor, taught me how to question, how to dig deep, focus and study hard. He also taught me how to write. My parents always encouraged my interests, and to bring my diverse interests together. In dermatology, I have been lucky to have been mentored by Ilona Frieden, Amy Paller, Seth Orlow, Sam Weinberg, Elizabeth McBurney, and many others. My husband has been my best friend and a mentor, too; we just celebrated our 15th anniversary.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
B>A. One of my medical school professors said, “When you study, go for depth of knowledge, rather than breadth.” And of course, “More thinking, less testing,” is more apt than ever.
Q. Which medical figure in history would you want to have a drink with and why?
B>A. Although he is not a medical doctor per se, I would choose to meet BKS Iyengar, the yoga pioneer. He is over 90 years old. There is a lot of valuable medical wisdom in yoga. I have healed my back and cleared my mind with Iyengar yoga. Dr. Barankin is a dermatologist based in Toronto, Canada. He is author-editor of six books in dermatology, and is widely published in the dermatology and humanities literature. He is also co-editor of Dermanities (dermanities.com), an online journal devoted to humanities as they relate to dermatology.