The Optimized Doctor

Dig Like an Archaeologist

Jeffrey Benabio, MD, MBA

August 22, 2022

You can observe a lot by watching. – Yogi Berra

He was a fit man in his 40s. Thick legs. Maybe he was a long-distance walker? The bones of his right arm were more developed than his left – a right-handed thrower. His lower left fibula was fractured from a severely rolled ankle. He carried a walking stick that was glossy in the middle from where he gripped it with his left hand, dragging his bad left foot along. Dental cavities tell the story of his diet: honey, carobs, dates. Carbon 14 dating confirms that he lived during the Chalcolithic period, approximately 6,000 years ago. He was likely a shepherd in the Judean Desert.

Isn't it amazing how much we can know about another human even across such an enormous chasm of time? If you'd asked me when I was 11 what I wanted to be, I'd have said archaeologist. How cool to study artifacts and recreate stories from eons ago! I sometimes still get to be that kid in my office. Noticing people, their scars, their flaws, knowing there is a story behind each one.

A 64-year-old woman with a 4-cm red, brown shiny plaque on her right calf. She burned it on her boyfriend's Harley Davidson nearly 40 years ago. She wonders where he is now.

A 58-year-old man with a 3-inch scar on his right wrist. He fell off his 6-year-old's skimboard. ORIF.

A 40-year-old woman with bilateral mastectomy scars.

A 66-year-old with a lichenified nodule on his left forearm. When I shaved it off, a quarter inch spicule of glass came out. It was from a car accident in his first car, a Chevy Impala. He saved the piece of glass as a souvenir.

A fit 50-year-old with extensive scars on his feet and ankles. "Yeah, I went 'whistling-in' on a training jump," he said. He was a retired Navy Seal and raconteur with quite a tale about the day his parachute malfunctioned. Some well placed live oak trees is why he's around for his skin screening.

A classic, rope-like open-heart scar on the chest of a thin, young, healthy, flaxen-haired woman. Dissected aorta.

A 30-something woman dressed in a pants suit with razor-thin parallel scars on her volar forearms and proximal thighs. She asks if any laser could remove them.

A rotund, hard-living, bearded man with chest and upper-arm tattoos of flames and nudie girls now mixed with the striking face of an old woman and three little kids: His mom and grandkids. He shows me where the fourth grandkid will go and gives me a bear hug to thank me for the care when he leaves.

Attending to these details shifts us from autopilot to present. It keeps us involved, holding our attention even if it's the 20th skin screening or diabetic foot exam of the day. And what a gift to share in the intimate details of another's life.

Like examining the minute details of an ancient bone, dig for the history with curiosity, pity, humility. The perfect moment for asking might be when you stand with your #15 blade ready to introduce a new scar and become part of this human's story forever.

Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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