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Socks, Kiwis and Surgical Removal

Written by Dr Genevieve Yates · Sunday 23rd February 2014

I’m a klutz. Always have been. Probably always will be. I blame my clumsiness on the fact that I didn’t crawl. Apparently I was sitting around one day and toddling on two feet the next. Whatever the cause, it’s a well-tested fact that I’m not good on icy footpaths. Various parts of my anatomy have gotten up close and personal with frozen ground on many an occasion. Not usually an issue for a born-and-bred Australian, except when said Australian goes to visit her Canadian family during the northern winter.

During one such visit, I found myself unceremoniously plopped onto slick ice while my two-year-old niece frolicked around me with sure-footed abandon. I thought, “There has to be an easier way.” As freezing water seeped through my jeans, providing a useful cold pack for my screaming coccyx, my memory was jogged.

I recalled that a lateral-thinking group of New Zealand researchers had won the Ignoble Prize for Physics for demonstrating that wearing socks on the outsides of shoes reduces the incidence of falls on icy footpaths. To the amusement of my niece, I tried out the theory for myself on the walk home. I don’t know if I had a more secure foothold or not, but I did manage to get blisters from wearing sneakers without socks.

I love socks. They cover my large, ungainly clod-hoppers and keep my toes toasty warm almost all year round. You know the song ‘You can leave your hat on.’? Well for me, it is more a case of ‘You can leave your socks on, especially in winter. There’s nothing unromantic about that… is there?

I’m not, however, as attached to my socks as a patient I once treated. As an intern doing a psychiatry rotation, one of my tasks was to do physical examinations on all admissions. Being a dot-the-i’s kinda girl, when an old homeless man declined to remove his socks so that I could examine his feet, I didn’t let it slide.

“I haven’t taken off my socks for thirty years,” he pronounced.

“It can’t be that long. Your socks aren’t thirty years old. In fact, they look quite new,” I countered.

“When the old ones wear out, I just slip a new pair over the top.”

I didn’t believe him. From his odour, I would have believed that he hadn’t showered in thirty years, but the sock story didn’t add up.

He eventually agreed to let me take them off. The top two sock layers weren’t a problem but then I ran into trouble. Black remains of what used to be socks clung firmly to his feet, and my gentle attempts at their removal resulted in screams of agony. I tried soaking his feet. Still no luck. His skin had grown up into the fibres, and it was impossible to extract the old sock remnants without ripping off skin.

In retrospect I probably should have left the old man alone, but instead got the psych registrar to have a peek, who then involved the emergency registrar, who called the surgeon and soon enough the patient and his socks were off to theatre.

The ‘surgical removal of socks’ was not a commonly performed procedure, and it provided much staff amusement. It wasn’t so funny for Mr. Sock Man, who required several skin grafts!

From my perspective here in Canada, while I thoroughly commend the Kiwis for their ground-breaking sock research, I think I’ll stick to the more traditional socks-in-shoes approach, change my socks regularly and work a bit on my coordination skills.

PHYSICS PRIZE: Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes. "Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention," Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest, New Zealand Medical Journal. vol. 122, no, 1298, July 3, 2009, pp. 31-8.

(This blog post has been adapted from a column first published in Australian Doctor

Dr Genevieve Yates is an Australian GP, medical educator, medico-legal presenter and writer. You can read more of her work at