Dr. Rex Amonette recalls how his fellow members of the American Academy of Dermatology responded when, at a recent seminar, he told them he gives patients his home telephone number: "I heard a gasp and I could see everybody shaking their heads, thinking, there's no way I am going to do that."
But Amonette says that it gives his skin cancer patients peace of mind, "knowing they have that number if they need it" and at the Memphis Dermatology Clinic, he stresses, "We are very patient-oriented." In fact, Amonette and his seven associates are now used as a national model by the academy, to teach medical students how to run a dermatology practice with a special focus on making patients more comfortable. Among other things, the Memphis clinic features private waiting rooms for families, and original art throughout the office, even in the surgical suites.
Born in the tiny hamlet of Nashville, Arkansas, Amonette attended Hendrix College and graduated from medical school at the University of Arkansas. He joined the Air Force, and while stationed at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, he first planned on being a flight surgeon before deciding to focus on dermatology.
The specialty has certain advantages. "You see what you are doing," he says. "You are not guessing. If the skin is doing well, you know it, unlike other diseases, such as those involving the liver, for example. That is such a wonderful aspect of practice for me -- being able to know how things are, visually."
Amonette came to Memphis in 1972 and opened his current practice, tucked away in a former insurance company building at Union and Kimbrough, in 1984. From the beginning, he specialized in the treatment of skin cancer and was a pioneer in this region in the Mohs surgical technique. "It's a tracing procedure," explains Amonette, "so we don't have to guess at the exact size of a tumor. In the past, you would just cut it out, but you don't want to cut away half of a person's face taking out something very small."
"When I first opened my clinic, there wasn't anybody else doing this procedure between Chicago and Miami," he says. "That first year, we saw patients in 28 states." Other clinics have since followed suit, "so our referral area has shrunk, but we are still busy."
That's because skin cancer is on the rise. Amonette says that is partly because people are simply living longer. "Many people are developing skin cancer later in life, whereas in the past they might have already passed away from something else."
And there's another factor: "It always sparks a fight when I mention this, but the tanning-bed industry is really a contributor to a lot of skin cancers." Especially dangerous are those used at home, "because there are no restrictions on the overuse of them."
That same sun that provides the body with much-needed vitamin D can also cause certain people -- especially those with fair skin, blue eyes, reddish hair, and lots of freckles -- to develop skin cancer. The ears and nose are the most likely areas to develop problems. But prevention is easy, says Amonette. "I don't like to take people away from activities outdoors that they like to do, but you just need to avoid that really dangerous part of the day, that 10 to 4 sun."
Amonette also advises people to recognize the warning signs of skin cancer. "The education materials are readily available," he says, "and the online things are really helpful. Anybody can Google 'skin cancer' and really learn a lot in just a few minutes."