I lost all hair, but I’ve learnt to rise above ridicule


alopecia image

Adult’s head has 100,000–150,000 hair follicles and each follicle can grow about 20 individual hairs

Wednesday March 18 2020

My name is Gladys Chege and I have been a kindergarten and Sunday school teacher for the last 21 years.

When I was younger, I had long beautiful hair, which I loved braiding. Like most women, it was such a joy when someone complimented my hair. My sister always made my hair and the result was always enviable.

However, one day in 2009 as my niece was undoing my braids, she noticed a tiny bald patch at the back of my head. I assumed she must have pulled out of my braids while undoing the hair and I even scolded her and asked her to be more careful next time. Little did I know it was the beginning of my hair loss journey. I was only 31.

By 2010, the bald patch had got slightly bigger and we assumed it was ringworm. I went to the hospital and was wrongly diagnosed with a bacterial infection and given drugs, which I took for a month. Meanwhile, I undid the weave I had and this time the bald patch was so big that it was alarming.

I went to the hospital again. The doctor suspected a bacterial infection, but since medication hadn’t worked earlier, I decided to see a dermatologist. By this time, I was wearing a wig as the bald patch was obvious. The dermatologist had no clue why my hair was falling off at such an alarming rate and prescribed oral tablets and an ointment for my scalp. Three days later, I developed blisters on my head. This was too stressful and I decided not to seek further medical help.

CUT HAIR

I had to make the painful decision of chopping my hair. I started wearing my hair short as it was still falling off. I would wake up and find strands of hair on my pillow. Sometimes it would fall off in the shower and combing it became a nightmare as the hair loss would get worse.

I decided to seek information online and that was how I stumbled upon alopecia, the scientific name for hair loss. I went to the hospital, but no one had a solution. Worse still, I had no idea the stress I was going through was aggravating the hair loss. I hid in my house for a whole year. I felt I was walking an extremely cold journey. I decided to leave work as I kept asking for permission to go to hospital.

In 2010, 2011 and 2012 all my hair fell off and I was left with a shiny, extremely sensitive scalp. Scratching always left a wound.

In 2013, I experienced total baldness (Alopecia Totalis). My eyebrows started thinning until they eventually disappeared altogether. I would look at my photos when I had hair and get angry. How I wished my hair would grow back. Depression was beginning to take a toll on me.

In 2014, I did not have a single strand of hair on my body (Alopecia Universalis). From the hairs in the nose to my eyelashes, all body hair deserted me. I became prone to ear and eye infections as I no longer had filters to trap the dust from the environment.

In 2015, I got the courage to step out in public. I had earlier alternated between wigs and hats, but they were uncomfortable, especially when it was hot.

I remember a nasty incident in a matatu, where a man sat next to me and slapped my head. He did it twice, causing a commotion in the vehicle. He asked me why women cut their hair. Luckily, he was kicked out of the vehicle, but I felt embarrassed.

My baldness is as a result of an autoimmune disorder, which I have managed to control with supplements.

The last doctor I saw told me that medical intervention would not help me and it would require a miracle for my hair to grow back. In 2017, a circle of hair grew on my head, but disappeared within a month.

SCALP DISEASES

I, however, was glad my hair follicles were not dead. I chose to live for God with or without hair and I dared to believe He will miraculously grow it back. Last year, I noticed my nose fur started growing. Lately, I have noticed my hair is sprouting on my scalp too. It is not very pronounced but it is encouraging. My eyebrows and eyelashes also grew back about five months ago.

We got together with other people with alopecia and formed a WhatsApp group dubbed ‘Tripple B” — Bold, Bald and Beautiful, where our slogan is ‘we are not our hair’.

The average adult’s head has about 100,000 — 150,000 hair follicles and each can grow about 20 individual hairs in a person’s lifetime.

PREVALENCE

“We do not have specific studies showing hair loss in Kenya. However, we generally know at least one in every two people will lose hair at some point in their life to whatever cause there may be. We are seeing thousands of hair loss patients seeking treatment in trichology centres, dermatology clinics as well as in hospitals,” explains Muli Musyoka, the lead trichologist at the Hair Hub Trichology Centre in Nairobi.

Dr Pranav Pancholi, a celebrity dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon at Avané Dermatology Clinic in Nairobi concurs with Mr Musyoka. “Alopecia is quite common today and in the last 13 years I’ve been in practice, we see at least two patients a day suffering from hair loss,” says Dr Pancholi.

“But, we have several cases of alopecia totalis that we have successfully reversed. I am yet to treat a case of universalis though.”

But at what point is medical intervention futile? “In autoimmune cicatricial alopecia cases where patients have lost excessive hair, the condition may be stopped but hair recovery may be impossible,” explains Mr Musyoka.

Science is also making giant strides towards finding answers for the people troubled with hair loss. Dr Pancholi speaks of a state-of-the-art Korean groundbreaking technology that has been tried and tested in Korea, which he is introducing locally.

“Trichoscopy (a method of hair and scalp evaluation, which is used for diagnosing hair and scalp diseases) has done well and is coming to Kenya. It consists of a device for hair care solutions,” says Dr Pancholi. “The device has a trichoscope, which counts and measures hair loss. Based on computer-based algorithms, it calculates how much hair loss is in each area.”

THE SCIENCE OF IT

A few years back, hair loss was synonymous with old age. It was not unusual to see old men with receding hairlines or bald spots, especially right at the centre of the head. Today, a quick look around your work place or in the streets will reveal that more younger men are spotting the ‘bald look’.

However, if you dig deeper, you will discover for some it’s as a result of hair loss. The medical name for hair loss is alopecia and there are various types of hair loss. The balding that has become quite common in men is referred to as androgenetic alopecia, also affecting women.

Hair loss can be triggered by various reasons, which range from thyroid disease, anaemia, chemotherapy, high stress levels, lactation, autoimmune diseases, polycystic ovary syndrome, skin conditions, scalp conditions like ringworm, protein deficiency, hormonal changes, diet, family history, excessive styling (too much heat, tight braids, tightly held hair), Vitamin B12 deficiency.