Doctor’s Orders

Dr. Elena Jones is a private person with a private practice. On the Upper East Side of New York City, stands her medical office of Dermatology which she founded nearly twenty years ago. The giant limestone building is historic, complete with a marble plaque engraved with her credentials, mounted alongside the entrance. Adjacent, is a doorman in full uniform, sauntering under the awning of the luxury condos next door. At 86th and Lexington Ave, make no mistake, this is one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in America and this practice comes recommended by a global popstar, so you know it has to be good.

I’d never seen a dermatologist in my life. I’d always assumed it was an elective indulgence like a facialist, acupuncturist or masseuse; a health concern of the elite. And even though I was tasked with this visit as a journalist, I recalled the vulnerability often embedded in the role of a patient. It’s a position of surrender, one that quietly says “I’m all out of ideas, Doc. Now, what should I do?”

Dr. Elena Jones graduated from Georgetown School of Medicine. Starting her career in Pediatrics and transitioning later to Dermatology. She completed two residencies; the former at New York’s renowned Bellevue Hospital and the latter at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In other words, she’s board certified…twice over. Today she acts as the Chief Dermatologist of Humanrace and despite all these qualifications, both the doctor and her office are disarming, humble and well worn-in.

On a humid morning of heavy rainfall, I met with Dr. Jones, though eventually I came to see her as a caregiver first and a medical doctor second. Elena Jones is a natural born nurturer and a hometown hero of the Upper East Side. Her commitment is the wellness of her patients. We spoke about the best practices for caregiving, not only as a professional but as a mother, a colleague and friend…but most importantly, the practice of care she gives to herself.

Pt. 1: The Person

Recho: So, how do you feel about the idea of being a celebrity dermatologist? Because I feel like you're leaning into it. 

Dr. Jones: That's interesting. I guess, how do you define a celebrity dermatologist?

R: Well, when I was researching you, there wasn’t much press except for what’s been linked to Pharrell and he's such a bright star. Sometimes it can be scary to have friends who are so large because you might not want that for yourself. It can be hard to preserve the relationship without—I don't wanna say being sucked into their world but you know, it's a big, bright star…

Dr: No, you're right. I love that you ask that question because it really taps into who I am. This is a new foray for me; something I never envisioned. I didn't become a dermatologist to become a celebrity. I became a dermatologist because I care about people. I care about skin. So stepping into this role has definitely made me step outside of my comfort zone. It challenges me cause it's not necessarily my personality. Fame is not something that I need, you know?

R: It’s not something you invite… 

Dr: Correct. Because I'm really a behind-the-scenes person. I'm very content to do my job and do it well. I need the accolades of my patients day to day but I don't need the grander accolades. That's just who I am but at this point in my life, I gotta push myself and do things I'm not the most comfortable with; that I never thought I’d do. 

Dr: Probably my weight. I've never been obese but I've never been a nice little size four either…never been that. So I did obsess about that as a young person but this new generation has really helped me to embrace my body more. I just love seeing girls who are embracing themselves no matter what and throwing it out there. And they're dating! They get men. My thing was, Oh my God, I'm fat. I'm never gonna get a husband. I'm never gonna get a man. No, these women are beautiful and dating and it’s inspired me. It's the confidence. Confidence is key.

Confidence is that self love, that inner peace. It’s allowing yourself to shine no matter what. No matter what anyone else is saying out there.

R: How would you describe confidence? What is it?

Dr: Confidence is that self love, that inner peace. It’s allowing yourself to shine no matter what. No matter what anyone else is saying out there.

R: It's so hard though. It’s hard to be confident when you have bad skin. Has managing the patient’s confidence been a part of your job?

Dr: Oh, totally. You know what, I'm glad you asked that too because that is a lot of my job which goes unseen. That's a majority of it. I've got to be the cheerleader for my patients. I've got to lift them up and I've gotta do it in a way where it's genuine, sincere and honest. But yes, I have to encourage. The tool that's always worked for me is listening and meeting them where they are; making sure they're prepared to hear what I have to say. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. 

R: Do you see tears?

Dr: Oh, all the time. Oh my God, yes. A lot of tears.

R: When you started your private practice, did you have a legacy in mind? How did you want to be remembered?

Dr: I really wanted people to feel like they were seeing a small town practitioner. I'm in a big, crazy place like New York City but I wanted them to feel that down-home nurturing. I want to be remembered as a caring type of physician because that just speaks to me and who I am. 

Pt. 2: The Profession

R: This office is very cozy. It’s homey in here. I was expecting something very bright and sterile. 

Dr: It is! It's very homey. It's a great location for me and for patients. I’m very blessed.

R: Have you always been in this location? 

Dr: I've been here for seventeen years. Prior to that, I was right up the street on Fifth Avenue. We actually purchased this space since I was renting up there. So, I've been here a long time. It's hard to believe I've been here that long. 

R: Is there another long standing small business that's been here the whole time?  

Dr: Actually yes, the other dermatologist who I shared an office with. We started at the exact same time and they’re still running. That’s interesting, I never thought about that. 

R: So what is your role in the Humanrace universe? 

Dr: My title is Chief Dermatologist. I’ve been involved intimately from the very, very beginning in creating the product line from developing the formulas to suggesting ingredients to testing the products. I literally got a shipment of products today. So we just go back and forth saying “Well, no to this. This is not gonna work here. We need to add this.” I also act as the medical face of credibility for the Humanrace skincare line. 

R: What’s the difference between a MedSpa and a Dermatologist? 

Dr: MedSpa…that term is like a thorn in a dermatologist’s side because we went to medical school. We trained for six years and took many exams. MedSpas are generally people who are estheticians who maybe took an eight month course. And there's some amazing estheticians out there but they just don't have the same training. 

I think the lines have blurred a little bit because there’s a lot of medspas that are run by medical directors who might not be dermatologists but can be of any specialty, so people get confused. There are great estheticians out there, though. My advice is to make sure that number one, they know how to deal with your skin type. And number two, if there’s a problem, they know how to fix it. I’ve come across patients, who've gone to a medspa, run into a problem and they can't fix it. Then they come to see a dermatologist and we have to fix it.

R: Do you ever find yourself diagnosing pedestrian skin?

Dr: All the time! However, the challenge is to not approach them. I'll never forget this. We were at the museum, me and another dermatologist and we saw a guy with a skin cancer on his face and she approached him and he was not prepared to accept what she said. 

R: You knew it was cancer? 

Dr: Oh yeah. You could tell but there's certain times you have to temper how you approach people. You know what I mean?  Dermatologists are visual people. So I'm always looking, always. I don't miss a lot. I just can't help it, you know? But you have to be careful with people. You have to be really careful. 

R: I read somewhere that today, a majority of patients see dermatologists for vanity concerns whereas before, most patients had health concerns. Have you noticed that pivot?

Dr: Yes. Very much so. 

R: Does it frustrate you? 

Dr: Sometimes because I have patients who are gorgeous in every way and come in for things I don't see and that's a struggle for me because I want to help. I want to offer something but I also have to be honest. And I am honest but I’m just seeing more and more young people. They look amazing and there's really nothing that they need but they're still searching; always searching, you know?

However, I don't think it’s fair to say that’s the majority. Vanity has become more prominent in the practice but I really believe people are coming in for health issues. People who are coming in for hair loss or because they're devastated by their acne or psoriasis; all sorts of things. Lately, vanity has played a bigger role but that's just—I’d say, only the past five to ten years. With the advent of smartphones and the internet, I think celebrities have brought a lot of this cosmetic fascination to the public in general. 

R: Have you ever had a patient you couldn’t help?

Dr: It’s hard, but yes. I have a young woman and we’ve really been struggling with her acne. We had to sit down and peel back what’s going on. I have to ask what you are putting into your body? What are you putting on your face? You've gotta peel back the layers because it's a myriad of things coming together to conspire against your skin. 

R: You’re right. It’s a conspiracy. 

Dr: [LAUGHS] It can be! And sometimes you just don't find the answer to why. It's beyond frustrating to me… beyond, beyond, beyond. Medicine in general, it's an art as much as it is a science because we don't always have the answers. And that's the hardest thing to impart to patients is that I don't know it all, but I'm gonna do my best to help you in every way I can. Even still, I may not have the answers and that's something we have to own up to. 

R: It just goes to show that we're not in control. 

Dr: That's the other thing. We're not necessarily. Not fully. 

Pt. 3: Their Practice

R: In your practice, what's something you’ve found to be deeply gratifying that you didn't expect when you chose this path? 

Dr: That's a very good question. What’s been so rewarding and truly just warms my soul is the long term relationships that I've had with patients over the years. I guess I didn't really expect that. I didn't expect dermatology to be a place where I would have a patient as a teen and then the teen would get married and then I'd have their kids as patients. A number of my patients have really become my friends. I can’t tell you the number of weddings and funerals and graduation parties I’ve gone to, so relationships… that's what it's been about for me. 

R: What did you and Pharrell have in common? I mean yes, he's known for his skin but why him? I'm sure a lot of public figures could have asked you to participate in their project.

Dr: That's a great question. In some kind of way Pharrell and I just connected. I think both of us have this kind of spiritual kind of—well that's not the word I wanna say, but like we're both into astrology, let's start with that. We're both kind of ethereal dreamers but I’m certainly more rooted in the earth and more conservative than he is. 

R: So you’re a water sign? 

Dr: Of course. How did you know that? 

R: Well, you said ethereal dreamers. 

Dr: Right! I'm a Pisces. He’s an Aries though. 

R: That’s right. You must have an earth sign in you. Like a Capricorn or something? 

Dr: Virgo.

R: I knew it.

Dr: [LAUGHS] So we connected on that level and again, I've just known him for a long time. It's like for whatever reason and I really don't know why, but he trusted me from the very beginning. He entrusted me with his care. 

R: All products aside, what are some things that affect our skin more than we think?

Dr: Sun is number one. The sun, of course. Your spirit. You need to have a healthy lifestyle, whether it’s your diet or controlling your stress. Sleep is real. And so is drinking enough water. You gotta be well hydrated. 

R: Has it been crazy to see the emphasis on the skincare routine? I get the sense that you don't buy into it all that much.

Dr: I'm more of a keep it simple kind of person and people are being— I'm not gonna say taken, but it's a huge market and industries are capitalizing on that market. A simple, trustworthy routine is all you need. 

R: How much vacation time do you take? 

Dr: Oh, as much as I can. So that's the beauty of having my own space and being a solo practitioner. I find that I need to recharge every three months because I'm talking to people all day long. I can see up to fifty patients per day and that's low. I used to see more than that but as I've gotten older, I have to take my “me” time. 

R: What is something that worries you about the future? 

Dr: As a mom, I'm worried about the state of affairs for people of color. I'm worried about my child. I'm worried about how the world will view him and how he will manage in this world. I could have sleepless nights over that one. 

R: I noticed you said how others will view him. With children in general, how do you manage how they'll view themselves? 

Dr: That's a great question. It's really instilling confidence in him and providing him with the best education that I can and allowing him to make his own mistakes. It's a scary, slippery slope and so my point was —because even if I could give him all of that, I can give him everything possible and the world can still rob him, you know? That's the fear. But you have to let that process take place. That's the hardest thing for me. Just to let go and believe everything’s gonna be okay.