She was sitting up and resting comfortably in her hospital cot, her home-made mauve and black afghan tucked comfortably under her arms. A pale yellow handkerchief was lumped on the bedside table beside the phone. She looked up at me as I walked into the room, greeting me with her big smile and sparkling hazel eyes. Except for a few patches of sparse, fuzzy auburn hair, she was bald.
"Hi, Mom," I said, walking up to her and pulling my mask down to gently kiss her cheek, "how are you today?" Despite the heart-breaking circumstances which lead to her being a patient lying in a hospital bed, I had never seen Mom look so beautifully breath-taking. And under normal, healthy circumstances, she was already quite a beautiful person, inside and out.
Mom ran her hands over her scalp, weakly smiling. "Well, honey," she said, "I guess we can cancel the rest of my hair-dressing appointments for the year." Over the past few days, the ravaging effects of Mom's chemotherapy regiment had taken ahold, which included her hair falling out in clumps.
"Mom," I said, reassuringly, "I don't think I have ever seen you look more beautiful." I walked over to the yellow handkerchief and picked it up, examining it. Strands of her thick, wavy hair clung to it. "What do you say we just throw this out?"
"Oh, Jimmy," she said, exhaling a deep breath, "I just don't think I am ready for that yet."
I understood completely. Mom had been raised in an era where curlers and perms and colorings played an important part of a woman's presentation. And although Mom was far from vain (how could she be when she was busy raising seven kids), she thoroughly enjoyed indulging in her hair. Hair that was now gone.
Despite a custom-made wig and multiple handkerchiefs, I don't think Mom's beauty was ever more evident than when she went bald during her chemotherapy days. Her baldness only seemed to enhance her indomitable spirit. Her eyes danced more openly. Her raw facial expressions confirmed her appreciation of life. Her prominent cheekbones exuded her infinite strength And the curve of her smiling lips were only that much more welcoming, appropriately framing the beauty of her words.
Accompanying her baldness, the truth of Mom's bravery in fighting her illness could not have been any more evident.
As I go along in my typical days of being an ER physician and the father of a child who has survived his own life-threatening illness, I can only tell you, without hesitation, that this baldness that accompanies one's fight for their life is as pure and as defining of one's character as any physical attribute can be. Without any words spoken, a patient's baldness from chemotherapy reveals a fighting spirit and a commitment to continue living. It reveals a strength drawn from reservoirs most people don't recognize they have until faced with crisis.
It commands my respect. And I rightfully give it.
Recently, at my gym, I couldn't help but notice one of the trainers, Barb, working-out with a woman who wore a handkerchief over her scalp. It was obvious that this client was intimately familiar with chemotherapy. It was very inspiring, to say the least, to watch this woman physically push herself through a workout despite her recent setback.
A few weeks later, surprisingly, I saw this same woman working-out without her handkerchief. Evidently, she chose not to cover up her baldness. And she looked stunning. As Barb and she worked out beside me in the cable room, I decided I had to speak up.
"Excuse me," I said to the woman. keeping it simple, as Barb looked on, "but I just have to tell you how stunning you look. I have no idea what you are going through, but I've seen you working out and pushing yourself these past few weeks and am thoroughly impressed. I wish you the best."
Well, Barb's client blushed a little as she thanked me. And later on, Barb came up to me and said that my words were exactly what her client had needed to hear since she was having a bad day. I hadn't been sure I should have said something, but Barb reassured me that my words were quite welcomed by this brave woman.
Especially in our ER, because of our regional cancer institute, we are privileged to treat many people who are wearing their baldness proudly as they undergo chemotherapy treatments. Both male and female. From the very young to the very old. And every time I have a patient who is bald for this reason, I make sure they know that they have my utmost respect. And if it is a child, that respect is also accompanied by a pile of stickers, a coloring book, and a Popsicle, if allowed.
A few weeks back, a brave little seven year-old girl greeted me as I walked into her ER room. She had been battling acute lymphocytic leukemia and, despite some mouth sores, still managed to greet me with her fading smile. On her head, nothing but baldness. At most, just a few patches of fine blond hair clinging desperately to their homeland. I smiled back at her as I approached, hoping my eyes conveyed my happiness to meet her. I must have looked like a big giant Smurf--I had donned a blue paper gown, a blue mask, blue foot covers, and cream-colored gloves. Until we figured out her immune status, we had to protect her from us.
"Hello, May," I said, extending my hand. "It sure is nice to meet you." We talked a few minutes about school, her best friend, and who her favorite doctors at the regional Children's Hospital were. Her mother sat at May's bedside, contributing to May's memories. "May," I continued, when there was a pause in conversation, "when did you lose your hair?"
She got quiet, hesitant almost. Her mom spoke up. "About three weeks ago, doctor." "Well, May" I said, my eyes hopefully conveying my sincerity, "I've seen many patients who have lost their hair because of their medicines, but I must say that you are by far the most beautiful." May looked up at me, serious now, and locked her eyes onto mine. I didn't flinch nor did I look away.
"Seriously?" she asked. "Seriously," I replied. In her child's voice, she softly said "But I don't like it. Everybody stares at me."
"You know why, May?" I asked, grabbing her hand with my gloved one. "They aren't staring because you lost your hair. They are staring because they are amazed to see such a brave and courageous seven year-old. And that's you. Showing all these people that you can be beautiful and brave no matter what medicines you are on or no matter what disease you are fighting." She nodded at my words. "The next time someone stares at you, May, just give them your biggest smile ever!"
"Like this?" she asked before donning one of the most perfect smiles I have ever seen.
"Just like that." I told her, admiring her gaps from losing her baby teeth.
I'm not saying that if you are undergoing chemotherapy and have lost your hair, that you need to express your baldness. Hardly. Wear a wig or a bandana if you feel more comfortable. During your fight, you do what you need to do and don't worry about what the rest of us think. But if you are in my ER or if you pass a middle-aged guy who happens to take a second glance at you, don't be alarmed.
It's just me, sending you good energy and well-wishes. And recognizing your courage.
Yes, indeed. Bald is beautiful.
As always, big thanks for reading. I appreciate your time. Emma update--day 15 of 17. Swimming at the Great Barrier Reef today before beginning the long trip home tomorrow. If she comes home, that is! Australia, you have a new, wildly-excited admirer in my daughter. Thank you. See you in a few days...