Welcome Back, Dr. Pimple Popper!
Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper™, returned to her prairie roots this week for the 2021 Women’s Power Night Against Cancer, Wed., April 14, at the Route 66 Drive-in Theater to help raise cancer awareness and research support for Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU.
Lee stars in the TLC's medical reality series "Dr. Pimple Popper™" and has a successful practice in California. She completed her dermatology residency at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield in 2003.
The lively physician entertained guests with stories of her formative years as a young doctor new to the Midwest and the discovery in 2014 that a blackhead extraction on Instagram was a way to share her medical experiences with “my people.” She now has more than 7 million YouTube followers, TV programs on The Learning Channel and Discovery+, a cosmetic line and is author of the book Put Your Best Face Forward.
Q&A with Dr. Lee:
We recently had Match Day here at SIU. Was your Match Day at Drexel [University College of Medicine] a “Yay!!” or an “OK, Illinois it is”? Very much YAY. I did a rotation with SIU Derm and loved it there. It felt like home.
Did your dermatology residency at SIU School of Medicine meet your expectations? Yes, I loved my residency. I had no family or friends around me, so the fellow residents and the attendings became my friends and family. I sincerely would not trade my experience and my training at SIU with any other residency program in the nation.
As a former resident of New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, what WERE your expectations moving to Springfield? I didn't really have any — I didn't know what to expect. I thought of it as an adventure and I was just so appreciative and lucky to be doing such a competitive Dermatology residency. I didn't want to let the program down and I didn't want to let my family down, and I wanted to get the best experience I could possibly get.
Was there any culture shock? Well, I certainly didn't know how to layer my clothing. I'm from California, so I just thought I could put on a big puffy coat over an untucked T-shirt when it's cold.
But I'm open to all experiences; I've lived in multiple parts of our nation. My family is from Asia -- Malaysia and Singapore, specifically -- and I've been lucky to visit many other countries as well. I am always very interested in other cultures, in other people and what makes them happy, what makes them tick. So it was a wonderful experience to meet the people who live and work in and around Springfield.
Did you embrace any Midwestern experiences while here in 2000-03? A state fair? A horseshoe? A 15-minute commute to work? I learned to waterski on Lake Springfield and experienced my first tornado warning. Personally, I think a tornado is worse than an earthquake. The fact that you don't know an earthquake is coming before it happens is really a good thing.
I lived next to a cornfield, saw a life-size cow made entirely out of butter at the state fair, and got my first cat while in Springfield. I’ve always owned dogs but I decided to get a cat so I wouldn't have to walk a dog in the snow. Usually cats are a little lower maintenance. My beautiful cat, Dim Sum, lived for over 20 years and she really was my partner, preventing me from getting lonely in Springfield.
Did you have a mentor or coach who helped you get acclimated? All the attendings at SIU Dermatology were my mentors and coaches. Dr. [Lucinda] Buescher, Dr. [Robert] Buzzell, Dr. [Jonathan] Goldfarb, Dr. [Stephen] Stone, they are all dear to me and really helped shape the dermatologist that I am now. They welcomed me as if I was a member of their families and really made me feel very comfortable living in a place where I frankly didn't know anyone.
Do you have any humorous faculty stories or clinical anecdotes worth sharing? The faculty loved dressing up for Halloween, and their costumes were always so creative and extravagant, with a lot of thought put into it. When I look back, I realize that many of them are younger that I am now and can’t imagine this big role they played in our lives at such a young age, but they did a fantastic job. It just increases my love and respect for them.
Any memorable derm cases to compare with what you now see on the West Coast? One of the wonderful perks about being a dermatologist is developing really close relationships with your patients. Sometimes they're sort of like social calls: They come to see you and you catch up and often times you get to know whole families.
Many farmers, being out in the sun for long hours, would develop skin cancers. I learned from them that human skin when it is cauterized (which is what we do to stop little baby blood vessels from bleeding) that this smells like chicken fat. So I guess we probably DO taste like chicken, as the saying goes. Wonderful salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people that make me proud to be an American.
Social media was in its infancy around the new millennium. Was you interest sparked during your time here? Or later? We’d love to hear the origin story that set you on your course to nearly 7 million YouTube followers and TLC fame. When I was at SIU there were no such thing as a smart phone. I had a flip phone. Yes, I am that old. And we had beepers and actually called people on landlines! All this Dr. Pimple Popper stuff didn't start until about six years ago, when I decided to set up an Instagram page and show a little window into my world as a dermatologist. Early on, I happened to post a blackhead extraction video, and it just snowballed from there. Crazy, isn't it?
SIU Dermatology residents and faculty, summer 2001; Dr. Sandra Lee is front row center