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Zan Thompson

She's Itching for a Poison Oak Remedy

August 17, 1986|Zan Thompson

My grandmother, Bridget O'Brien Joyce, came down with a severe case of poison oak in the spring and in the fall, whether she left her house or not. She lived right in the middle of an old residential neighborhood of two-story frame houses in Portland, Ore.

No one else got poison oak in the middle of town. Not my father or either of my two aunts. And not Uncle Dennis, Grandma's brother, although they all lived in the same tall house.

Apparently so sensitive was she to what is now known as urushiol, the toxic ingredient in poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac, that just what was carried in the air was enough to give her the malady.

When the juices started to rise in the poison oak that grew in luxuriant patches under the fir trees that surrounded Portland, Grandma would be covered with the tiny blisters that curse those of us who get poison oak. I inherited Grandma Joyce's worthless, thin, white Irish skin, so celebrated in song and story and so bothersome to have.

I am not as susceptible as Grandma was, but I have had a couple of rattling good cases of poison oak. One was when I was in high school and I hadn't been near poison oak. I had been to the beach. Mother took me and my cousin, Billy Bradley, when we were about 12, to the beach on a long, hot August day.

Billy had been on a Boy Scout hike that morning high in the Hills of Beverly and when we were at the beach that afternoon, I used Bill's towel. Obviously, he had picked up a small spot of poison oak, and I dried myself thoroughly with the towel--hands, face, legs, arms.

The next day, I had poison oak from head to foot. It really was a macabre experience. I swelled up so that my arms wouldn't stay at my sides and had to be held up with pillows. I was in bed, of course. First my eyes swelled shut and then I got poison oak on the inside of my eyelids. This meant that my lids rolled open and stayed there and I couldn't close them. They scared the dog to death.

The liquid from the blisters on my ears dripped so that Mama had to keep changing the towel around my throat. She soaked towels in lime water and laid them across my body. Not the water from lime fruit but lime stone water. It sounds like using leeches but it must have done something.

I eventually recovered but it took weeks and I lost a semester of high school.

I tell you this story from my carefree girlhood only because I'm soon going to start a fund-raising effort to build a monument to a man named Dr. William Epstein. He has developed a substance that experiments seem to show will help poison oak sufferers.

It comes from a special mud, the same kind used in deodorants. Epstein is at UC San Francisco School of Medicine and the mud comes from Louisville, Ky.

When it is rubbed on the skin, the poison oak disappears.

Epstein says it lasts about 24 hours and will be available in about a year. The first will go to firefighters, those intrepid gentlemen who battle fires in the foothills and mountains, where the poison oak is heavy.

OK, Dr. Epstein, that's fair, but right after the firefighters, will you take my name? And that of a friend of my mother? He went into the woods and picked great armloads of the stuff and decorated the church with it for his wedding the next day. It was not a great honeymoon, the talk went.

And more about churches. I one time got a flourishing case of poison oak at a funeral in one of those dear little churches called something like the Little Brown Church in the Vale. I was sitting at the outside end of the pew and there was a dandy bush of poison oak six inches from my ankles in among the ferns. Don't send the money yet, but isn't it dandy about Dr. Epstein? He is a man who understands the problem. He once sat in a puddle of urushiol. Oh, Dr. Epstein, I am so sorry.

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