Every week on Dr. Pimple Popper, dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD, meets with men and women suffering from rare, often confidence-crushing skin conditions. The boils they carry are massive. The cysts are bubbling up to balloon-sized. But it's the people underneath the incredible lumps and growths that make the show worth watching. Just cover your eyes through the pus-filled eruptions, if you must.
We know your TV-watching schedule is already packed to the gills with Shark Week specials, but it's well worth flipping the channel to TLC in between reruns of Laws of Jaws and Air Jaws: The Hunted for this week's skin-care schooling with Dr. Pimple Popper.
Filled with fascinating full-body growths and life-threatening facial cysts, episode three has Dr. Sandra Lee popping a bump in "the triangle of death," suctioning buttery fat out of a patient's thigh, and severing a third-boob chest lipoma. There are no great whites, and nobody gets bitten, but it's no less mind-blowing than watching Ronda Rousey train with Bull sharks.
Case #1: Mary
We meet 56-year-old Mary in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. At first glance, there doesn't look to be anything abnormal about Mary, but with a closer look at her full-body shot, it's clear that there's a striking asymmetry between her right and left side. "Fatty tumors have infiltrated the entire lower left side of my body," Mary explains of her lopsided weight distribution. "My left side is close to a size 18, where my right side is a size 10. I'm not entirely sure how it got to this point, I just noticed that my left thigh was growing and it wouldn't stop."
Mary's daughter's upcoming wedding is the driving force to get a handle on what's happening with her body. Going shopping for her mother-of-the-bride gown quickly turns to breaking down in tears in the dressing room. "I've learned to wear bigger clothes that kind of hide everything," Mary says as we see her struggle to pull a dress over her uneven thighs. "It's hard because I don't get to feel like a normal person. I don't get to wear anything pretty. For the wedding, I want to walk in with confidence and for my daughter to feel proud of me."
Mary makes her way to California to see Dr. Lee, who is empathetic but very puzzled by what's happening below her patient's skin to cause the strange fat buildup. "My first thought with Mary is that this condition is fascinating," Dr. Lee says. "I've never seen anything like this before. I don't even know that I've seen it in a textbook." Pinching and poking at the fatty area, Dr. Lee deduces that the lumping is definitely caused by excess tissue and not cystic, so she decides to give Mary liposuction to draw out the fat in the troublesome left thigh area. For the procedure, Dr. Lee shoves a thick, syringe-looking tubular vacuum into Mary's leg, and the fat is sucked out, dripping into a vacuole like melted butter. Unfortunately, lipo is just a short-term fix, but Mary walks out with a smaller left thigh and a bit more symmetry.
After analyzing Mary's CT scan and speaking with her colleagues about the curious case, Dr. Lee has Mary come back for a follow-up appointment three weeks later. Dr. Lee diagnoses Mary with hemihyperplasia multiple hemostasis syndrome, which is a big word for a medical condition in which half of the body has enlarged fat tissue. While frustrating, the condition is not life-threatening, so the recommended next steps for Mary involve a change in eating habits and exercise. There's no quick fix, but we can take comfort in the fact that major surgery isn't always the solution to a perplexing skin problem like Mary's.
Case #2: Anthony
Next up is 23-year-old personal trainer Anthony, who has a huge sebaceous cyst growing in between his eyebrows. "I was washing my face one day when I noticed a small bump that I thought it was a pimple," Anthony explains. "Two years later, that formation has grown to the size of a grape and it's really bulging out of my face. I've been to three doctors, but the growth is very deep and close to my eye, so no one wants to touch it." He also adds that the growth is becoming a pressing problem for his eyesight. "If I don't get the cyst removed," he says, "it could push my eyeball out of its socket and cause total blindness." Scary stuff.
More than just a vision hazard, Anthony says that the cyst is seriously obstructing his confidence, too. "As a personal trainer, I have to sell myself and my services to perspective clients, and that part is particularly tough with my cyst," he explains. "I've caught people staring at my cyst. I've had people ask if someone beat me up. I'm just not comfortable in my own skin."
In Dr. Lee's chair, Anthony is ready to have the grape-sized growth chopped off. But the location, in an area that Dr. Lee refers to as "the triangle of death," makes the procedure tricky because an infection near the eye can cause blindness or possibly death. Dr. Lee carefully uses rounded scissors to cut into the mass, as Anthony keeps his eyes closed to avoid any of the numbing medication dripping into his eye. First, wiggling the bump around with her fingers to gauge the size, Dr. Lee squeezes the lump out of the tiny incision slit to ensure that the pus oozes out cleanly without any scarring. The texture of the cyst is like thick orange juice pulp, and as Dr. Lee keeps squeezing, the bloody white gunk keeps pushing up and out. In the end there's a gaping hole in Anthony's forehead, but Dr. Lee sews it up nice and tight, giving Anthony a new bump-free face and a renewed sense of confidence.
Case #3: Shane
Shane comes to Dr. Lee's office with a large lump growing off his left shoulder. "A few years ago a buddy noticed a golf ball-sized lump on my back," Shane says. "I let it go, and now it's the size of a grapefruit." Upon initial inspection, Dr. Lee jiggles the bump around, diagnosing it as a lipoma of the shoulder variety. "When operating in the shoulder area, there is a higher risk of scarring, so I want to make sure the incision is small and that there's not a lot of tension on the wound edges," says Dr. Lee of her procedure, which proves satisfyingly simple.
After slowly and precisely slicing into Shane's back, Dr. Lee gently runs her finger around the underside of the skin to feel the texture of the growth. So as not to poke a sharp tool into the shoulder muscle, Dr. Lee uses her index finger to latch onto a yellowish lump of hardened pus-y buildup and pull it towards the skin's surface. Then, with one small squeeze at the edges of the incision, a full brain-sized mass pops out of the skin and onto the operating table. No muss, no fuss — just a big ol' ball of pus. (Sorry.)
Case #4: Brandi
The final case of the episode takes us to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we meet 30-year-old Brandi, who has a large deflated balloon-looking growth on her chest, just above her left breast. In the past three years, the lump has grown from a quarter size to what looks like a loose whoopee cushion squeezed between her rib cage and her skin. "It bothers me all the time, because I just feels like a weight on my chest," Brandi explains, adding that her love life is taking a hit because of her condition. "When I go on dates, I wear something with a high neck. And if I ever want to get intimate with someone, the lump kills the mood because I have to explain why I have this third lump on my chest."
Because Brandi has never had an operation before, she's super nervous about being cut open — easily the most anxious patient we've seen thus far. Dr. Lee numbs Brandi's chest with a local anesthesia, and cuts into the mass. Immediately, bright yellow mush bubbles to the top. (Luckily, Brandi's eyes are covered... and you may want to take the same precaution, too.) Dr. Lee moves slowly and carefully, speaking to Brandi the entire time to make her feel as comfortable as possible.
Unlike Shane's case, Brandi's lipoma is stubborn, and Dr. Lee has to wrestle with it a little bit, cutting and pulling it out in small pieces. "This lipoma is harder than I expected," Dr. Lee explains. "It's not popping out nice and whole; instead it seems to have grown into little nooks and crannies." Pulling out sticky globs of fat out by the handful, Dr. Lee successfully removes the entire tri-boob lump, quite literally lifting a weight off Brandi's chest.
After a full hour of surgical success stories and skin education, Dr. Pimple Popper's third episode comes to a close. Tune in next week for a whole new cast of patients, and a whole lot more pus.