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.
This week's episode of Dr. Pimple Popper is particularly gnarly — even for card-carrying popaholics — featuring four different patients carrying humungous bumps and boils that ooze, smell like rotting trash, and spew cottage-cheese pus. Fair warning: Like your mom used to say about swimming, don't eat anything 30 minutes prior to watching this one.
Case #1: Ronan
The first patient we meet is 49-year-old flight attendant Ronan, who has two knees on his left leg. Or rather, what looks like a second knee is actually a squishy, grapefruit-sized lump hanging off his lower thigh, directly above his knee. Ronan explains that the bump has been with him for years, starting as a tiny spot and then ballooning into a painful mass. It's so painful that it takes Ronan more than 10 minutes to pull on his pants as he tries to slide his legs through the holes without disrupting the lump. And work is no easy walk down the aisle, either: If you've ever walked down a narrow airplane hall and accidentally banged your knee on an armrest, mumbling a string of four-letter words under your breath, you can only imagine how it must feel for Ronan on the daily.
Ronan comes to Dr. Lee with ample skepticism, as many doctors in the past have told him that the lump is no big deal and that it'll just go away on its own. "I've always distrusted doctors, and all these unhelpful diagnoses have made me even more cynical," he says. "But if I don't get it figured out now, I know the pain will never go away, so I hope Dr. Lee can help."
Dr. Lee is taken aback by Ronan's lump, simply because she's never seen a ball of this size in this part of the body. "A knee bump is unusual," Dr. Lee explains. "I don't know if it's a lipoma or a cyst. I think that it might be a lipoma because lipomas grow where there's fat, and there's some fat there. But it might be a ganglion cyst, which has to do with the leakage of synovial fluid, this gel-like fluid that's in our joints, and they sometimes pop up on wrists or ankles." To diagnose the bump, Dr. Lee punctures it with a syringe to see what type of liquid drains out. She confirms her suspicion that it is in fact a cyst, albeit the biggest she's ever seen.
Then the fun part: Dr. Lee cuts into the cyst with a scalpel, and a steady stream of white pus the consistency of liquid-y cottage cheese starts spilling out. And even when you think it's over, it keeps spewing, as Dr. Lee pinches and squeezes it until it's empty. (Like I said, it gets nasty.) But in the end, the procedure is successful, and Ronan is left with a fully deflated bump and zero pain — like a whole new leg, and a whole new lease on life.
Case #2: Amber
Next up is 37-year-old Amber from Ada, OK. Amber is a DJ, who uses her radio station as an escape from her painful "invisible" skin condition: Hidradenitis suppurativa, or HS for short. HS is a case of severe inflammation of the sweat glands, causing drippy craters to form beneath the skin. What makes the condition tricky is that these painful sores grow in places where most people can't see, like under the armpit or beneath breast tissue. Thus, Amber suffers in silence — and the silence is smelly. "When the sores drain it gives off a rotting trash odor, or sometimes it smells like mold, depending on what color comes out," Amber explains. "I've had black pus, green pus, yellow pus, bloody pus — I once used an entire roll of toilet paper to sop up the drainage."
Clearly there's a big problem here, but Amber has been unable to find a doctor that will help her manage her skin condition or, more importantly, a support system of people who understand her pain. "My mom was the only one who was there for me, and when she died I lost my only support," says Amber, her eyes welling up. "My relationship with my dad has been rocky because he doesn't understand my skin condition, and my stepmom Rhonda says some really hurtful things to me." (Be warned: You may need a full roll of toilet paper to sop up your tears after this confessional.)
Amber's story is more one of emotion than shooting pus, a welcome change after Ronan's knee explosion. Dr. Lee explains that Amber's sores are brought on by irritation of the hair follicles and sweat glands, and the best way to deal with it is though a local cortisone injection. "I inject steroids into the infected regions, and that will ultimately help to reduce Amber's pain and calm down the cysts," explains Dr. Lee. There's a lot of prodding and pain, but ultimately the end result is more manageable for Amber, which is more than any other doctor has ever offered her.
More than just treating Amber's HS from a medical standpoint, Dr. Lee offers Amber a support system, connecting her with Jennifer, another HS patient, to make Amber feel less alone when dealing with her chronic sores. Jennifer and Amber become long-distance friends, and the story reminds us that these skin conditions can be just as emotionally painful as they are physically draining. No pun intended.
Case #3: Sandy
Sandy enters Dr. Lee's office with Tommy the Tumor, her term of endearment for the large lump growing between her neck and shoulder. "Five years ago I realized I had a lump growing on my neck, and to make light of it, I decided to name it Tommy," says Sandy, whose long blonde hair hides the protrusion. "I went to a plastic surgeon to remove the tumor, but he must've left some of it in there, because Tommy just grew back. Now, I'm really worried that he might be deeper than he looks, and I know you have a lot of veins that connect your neck to your face, which scares me. I just want Tommy evicted from my neck forever."
As the second surgeon to attempt to excise Tommy, Dr. Lee is worried about cutting out the golf ball-sized lipoma, because there are a lot of very important nerves and blood vessels running through the neck. Upon initial incision, Tommy looks kind of like a bloody little eyeball of fat, and Dr. Lee uses her fingers to probe around at the area, as not to put anything too sharp right into Sandy's neck. Sadly, we see our first unbeatable lump of the series so far, as the fibers of the lipoma have wrapped around Sandy's neck veins and arteries. Dr. Lee makes the safe call to close up to avoid the risk, without fully evicting Tommy. In the end, Sandy's life proved far more important than ending Tommy's reign.
Case #4: Kristy
We meet 48-year-old Kristy in San Angelo, TX. When Kristy was in high school, a tiny white dot popped up on her eyelid. Fast forward to about two years ago, and the dot started growing bigger and bigger, leaving Kristy with a veiny sack hanging off her eyelid, seriously obstructing her vision and causing major discomfort. "Sometimes my eye gets watery and I go to rub it," she says, "and there's this nasty smell that I can't even describe when the lump drains." Another case of an odorous cyst. (Feeling #blessed that we can't smell through the TV.)
Kristy makes her way to California to see Dr. Lee, who immediately notices that Kristy's confidence has taken a huge hit because of this eye growth. "She doesn't really make eye contact and she's clearly self-conscious about it," says Dr. Lee, diagnosing the lumpy skin sack as an abnormally large milia. "Milia are typically tiny little superficial cysts around the eye, but this one's a doozy. This will be super tricky because milia form right underneath the surface of the skin, which means you have to knick it precisely to remove it without causing damage."
As for the smell, Dr. Lee says Kristy's milia drainage odor is actually normal. "Cysts do often have a smell," explains Dr. Lee. "I don't react to it, but they can smell like rotten cheese or toe jam. It really runs the gamut." Even though we can't smell the milia (again, bless), the excision itself is tough to watch — there are lots of blood and veins, and you're scared that Dr. Lee might poke Kristy's eye out.
If you're able to keep one eye on Kristy's eye (while the other one is closed in fear), you'll see Dr. Lee satisfyingly scissor away the free-hanging milia, ridding Kristy of the the pinto bean-like lump that's been impeding both her vision and confidence. It's a happy ending to a rollercoaster hour-long second episode. Tune in next week for a whole new cast of patients, and a whole lot more pus.