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Mrs. Roosevelt and the Korean bath

Imperial Spa at 1875 Geary shares a parking lot with KFC and a dry cleaners.

FIRST PERSON | Barbara Kate Repa

My friend Johanna and I honor a tradition of embarking on an adventure together to celebrate our birthdays, loosely based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s exhortation that doing scary things makes you stronger.

So when my big day neared this year, I urged an outing to the Imperial Spa at 1875 Geary. It’s an unlikely spot for a spa, next door to the post office, on the former site of the People’s Temple presided over by the Rev. Jim Jones, who infamously led more than 900 of his followers from the Fillmore to a mass suicide in Guyana. Now the site is a short strip mall where the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken hangs heavy in the air.

Two other friends who know skin and muscle — one an aesthetician, the other a masseuse — had separately sung the praises of the spa. But since neither Johanna nor I had experienced a Korean massage and scrub, the proposed outing held some of the requisite fear factors.

Johanna made reservations — and off we went, showing up early to partake of the communal facilities as the experienced spa-goers had suggested.

On arrival, we admit to the woman at the desk that we are newbies, but she offers no advice or direction — merely handing us two pink terrycloth robes, each wrapped around towels, and waving vaguely to a doorway.

“How will they find us when it’s time for our treatments?” Johanna asks.

“Don’t worry — they’ll find you. They’ve got your number,” assures another woman in a pink robe who seems to be at home in the place, pointing to the numbers on the locker keys.

Left to our own wanderings, we don the robes and some pink plastic sandals we discover near the dressing room, then clack as quietly as possible around the women’s area. We discover a bevy of spalike offerings, including a cold tub, hot tub, sauna, steam room, several basins for washing, something we dare not enter that resembles an operating room with a gurney in it and the most beckoning place of all: the Oxygen Room.

The wood-paneled room is warm but not hot, with walls imbued with yellow clay, thought to rid the body of impurities, and jade, said to be good for skin and blood circulation. Fragrant herbs hang in cloth bags on the walls. There are bamboo mats on the floor — and since no one is on them, we claim a couple.

After a relaxing half hour of gossiping while prone on the mats, Johanna poses the empirical question: “Do you feel like you have more oxygen in you?”

“I think so,” I say.

Much therapeutic giggling follows.

Possibly oxygenated and willing to be true believers, we are then beckoned upstairs to the women’s treatment room to receive what is described as a “Purification Body Scrub & Oil Massage, 80 minutes.”

Some words of warning: This treatment is not for the modest, prudish, delicate — or those who can’t appreciate the true adventure of being ministered to by women clad only in black underwear while lying buck naked on a plastic-wrapped massage table alongside several other women who are similarly splayed and displayed.

No questions are asked. The first order is to lie on your stomach.

After that, the attendant speaks little and for long stretches not at all, making each step in the treatment unexpected — and sometimes a little shocking.

To begin, she douses you with pans of lukewarm water, then scrubs the bejesus out of your skin with a rough sort of loofah mitt. The scrubbing is hard and brisk. Arms are thrown overhead with some force and vigor while armpits are scrubbed. And not a square inch of skin gets missed as your body is manipulated, legs and arms arched akimbo. Other spa-goers say they were wowed by the mounds of dead skin that are sloughed off during this drubbing, but I am not adventurous enough to peek out from under the towel they’ve thrown over my head.

Next comes the massage featuring surprises of its own, including being smacked by a very hot towel before the masseuse jumps on the table to do a death grip on my back muscles with her elbows. I indulge in regular trigger point massages in my less adventuresome life, so I am no stranger to painful manipulations. And a Midwesterner by birth, I am pridefully stoic. But this is real, prolonged pain. I focus my mind and search for a mantra to lend some hope: “Others have had this treatment — and have survived.” Johanna later confesses she had the same mantra.

Other surprises include having my face slathered with a cucumber and yogurt mince, then being urged to wash it away with some warmish white liquid in a pan. The attendant breaks her silence to explain: “It’s milk.” Then she yanks the scrunchie off my head and gives my hair and head a rough wash with some undisclosed agent.

When our treatments are over, I seek out Johanna, two soggy massage tables over. I’m thinking she looks scared; Mrs. Roosevelt would be proud. Released back to the dressing room, we are shaken and stirred, readying ourselves for dinner and a retox after the detox.

But we are uncharacteristically silent. We have clearly received “treatments”; our skin is polished and nary a muscle knot could have survived that energetic pummeling. But we are both still gauging whether the gain is worth the pain.

Back out into the parking lot where the air is perfumed with fried chicken, I take a brief break from fondling the skin on my newly soft elbows and arms to pose a question to my co-adventurer: “Would you go back?”

“Oh sure,” Johanna says. “But I think I might take someone with me who I really don’t like.”