Poison ivy: The closetful of cures could be worse than none at all


July 21, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

There are many ways of getting poison ivy, but one of the best is to get naked and to roll around in a patch of it, coating your entire body.

I apparently did this a couple of weekends ago. I have no memory of it, but there is much I do on weekends I have no memory of.

One of the best things about poison ivy, aside from the oozing, crusty pustules that keep people from crowding too near you on the bus, is all the stories you are told about it.

"You think you got it bad?" a guy next to me on the elevator said. "You don't got it bad."

Excuse me? I said. Do I know you? Have we been introduced?

"I know this couple goes camping, see, and they run out of toilet paper, see, and so they grab these leaves . . ."

Six people have told me that story. A seventh person told me she saw it on an episode of "L.A. Law." The stories differed slightly, but what they had in common was that the storytellers all found the stories unspeakably funny.

I am not laughing. I don't have time to laugh. I spend all my time not scratching.

The other thing about poison ivy is that everybody knows a cure, especially parents, whose kids get it all the time. In fact, during summer some parents don't even know their kids have it until they hose them down at the end of the week. Other parents see their kids break out in bumps and figure they've reached puberty.

"Nothing can be done," a mother of three told me. "There is nothing over-the-counter or prescription for it. Just don't scratch."

"Calamine lotion," a father of two told me. "Put it on with a cotton ball. And don't scratch."

"Go see a pharmacist," a friend told me. "They're just like doctors except they don't make you take your clothes off. And don't scratch."

I went to a pharmacist. He sold me a 2-ounce tube of a clear gel for $4.05.

"It should clear up in a day," he said.

Maybe it should have, but it didn't. It got worse. My arms started to lose even a humanoid appearance.

I went to a doctor. "It's poison ivy," he said. Is this where you charge me $50 and yell, "Next patient!" I asked. Because I hear there are no drugs for poison ivy.

"Who told you that?" he said, shocked. "The over-the-counter stuff is junk, but cortisone will cure it."

So he prescribed cortisone pills. He told me two things about them: They are cheap (only a few cents a pill, which is a lot cheaper than the over-the-counter junk) and they are very powerful.

"It's a steroid," he said. "And you have to follow my dosage instructions very, very carefully."

Is there any chance I will look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? I asked. Even for a week or two?

"No chance whatsoever," he said. "And please put your clothes back on. You're making the other patients laugh."

So I began taking cortisone. And what happens? A few nights ago on the American Movie Classics channel on cable, they show an old move called "Bigger Than Life," which is all about the horrors of cortisone.

I am not kidding. And it's no schlock movie. It stars James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. It was made in 1956, about eight years after cortisone was discovered to be useful in treating a variety of ills.

"It's the biggest thing since penicillin," a doctor in the movie tells James Mason.

Mason is this very sweet high school teacher. Everybody loves him: his students, his colleagues, his wife, his kid.

But he has these mysterious crippling pains (probably rheumatoid arthritis) and after exhaustive tests, the doctors give him cortisone.

"Take one pill every six hours," the doctor tells him.

"For how long?" James Mason asks.

"For life," the doctor says.

Quite a dose, in other words. But the doctor tells him to take it carefully and never to take more than is prescribed.

But strange things begin happening to Mason after he takes his cortisone. First, he goes on a shopping spree for his wife and kid, forgetting he is only a teacher living on a teacher's salary.

Then he gets this weird superiority complex, thinking he is smarter than his own principal.

Then, on PTA night, he tells the parents: "If the republic is to survive, we ought to get back to teaching hard work, self-discipline and a sense of duty."

Then he orders his kid to watch less television!

Clearly, he has gone insane.

Next, Mason fakes a bunch of prescriptions for more cortisone, which he begins to chew like candy.

It is Walter Matthau, as the school gym teacher, who finally saves him. Matthau finds this article on cortisone that talks about its dangerous side effects, which include wild superiority complexes.

Matthau rushes over to Mason's house just in time to keep Mason from plunging scissors into his kid.

Mason is taken to a hospital where they knock him out wit sedatives. But do they take him off cortisone?


"It was his misuse of it that was the problem," the doctor says. "All drugs are dangerous, even aspirin." But cortisone, "in carefully prescribed doses" will make him a wonderful human being again.

Mason wakes up in the hospital bed, is told what has happened, and hugs his wife and child. As the music comes up, Mason knows now that drugs are always wonderful when taken properly, doctors never make mistakes, and if something goes wrong, it is always the patient's fault.

Clearly, he is sane again.

After the movie, I took my own cortisone tablets and reflected on the message of the movie. Actually, I don't believe cortisone can give you a wild superiority complex.

Only a fool would tell you that. Only a fool like a doctor or a scientist or some other self-important insect that I could crush beneath my foot.

I know more than they do! I know more than anybody! I'm smart enough to be mayor! Or president! Or even governor!

I know everything! And if I keep taking my cortisone, I some day may be smart enough and powerful enough and perfect enough to be . . . yes!

A newspaper columnist!

Sorry about that. But it's what I do instead of scratching.

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