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ELECTION 2022

I embraced baldness and found peace

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Christine Odeph | Sep 16th 2018 | 5 min read
Joan Ogutu

After hiding her hair loss under wigs and suffering alone in the bathroom mirror for so long, Joan Ogutu, 33, has learnt to embrace her new look. She shares her story with Christine Odeph.

Before giving birth in 2014 I had a full head of hair. After the birth, I noticed a small patch on my head, about the size of a coin. I didn’t think much of it because I was still breastfeeding; I thought it was my hormones acting up so I just ignored it.

But when the baby was six months old, the patches started appearing on my hairline. The most worrying thing was that I was losing hair and it wasn’t growing back. The patches that remained were smooth and shiny; with no sign of regrowth. 

In Kenya, the term alopecia is so foreign. Naturally I didn’t know what it was even as it was happening to me. I wasn’t even worried until two years later. I had five or more huge patches and had long quit breastfeeding. A concerned friend suggested that I consult a trichologist, and I did. The consultation involves a type of test where they screen the patches to confirm hair loss, which they did. They then recommended the hair bald spots, and it is charged per hair. The overall cost would have come to almost Sh320,000 and that was too expensive for me. 

At that point, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be living with this for the rest of my life. Although in hindsight, I realised that hair transplant would not have worked due to the nature of the condition.

Globally, 80 per cent of alopecia sufferers report failure after hair transplant. I began researching to try and understand it while at the same time looking for any possible alternative treatment. By 2017, I didn’t have hair in the middle of my head. 

Losing hair is the most traumatic experience I‘ve gone through in my life. My husband is my biggest fan, and he‘d assure me that I‘m beautiful with or without hair but I still felt ugly. I have amazing friends who kept supporting me. Still, I was afraid to be out in the open. I made the situation worse by continuing to strain the scalp by weaving and crotchet-braiding. For the past three years, I have been wearing wigs most of the time.

I invested in them and became a wig expert with over 10 kinds. I felt like I was never beautiful without hair and I wore them to the point where my forehead had a permanent dent because of the wig cap and I would get headaches as a result. The few times I‘d go out without a wig, people would ask me if I‘m ok, if I‘m depressed, if I have cancer, if my marriage is okay. They would ask many demeaning questions. Others would just stare, and that would make me run back to my wigs.

Finally, after my birthday this year, I decided enough was enough. I was tired of the wigs. I came out publicly about alopecia and decided to create awareness about it. That was when I discovered I was not alone. I found a support group, I chanced upon a social media post from someone who had also experienced alopecia. She had been seeing a dermatologist and her hair had started growing up to 70 per cent. She gave me the doctor’s contacts and even walked the journey with me for six months.

When I first met the doctor, she had a series of tests done to first confirm whether the cause of the alopecia was an underlying autoimmune disorder or any other medical condition. They all came back negative. It was determined that my case is genetic. My treatment started last July and I see her every three months. Initially, she prescribed some daily medication. Within the first week, I was growing hair from everywhere and looked like a cavewoman! So the daily dosage had to be reduced. I also have a topical spray that I use on the bald spots. There’s no special diet required for my treatment. I began seeing some hair sprouting after six months so it’s an endeavour in patience and I am glad she was straight with me about that from the beginning. We are currently discussing a new course of treatment to inject directly on the bald spots. I am currently at 20 per cent hair regrowth. To be honest even if I get to just 50 per cent I will be satisfied. But for me, there will be no more hiding under wigs, braiding or weaving. Neat and short suits me. 

So what causes alopecia?

Alopecia is generally an umbrella term for conditions associated with hair loss. It has various causes and is often treatable, but a dermatologist can help identify causes and prescribe the right treatment. The condition is not life-threatening nor does it cause pain.

One in 50 people experience Alopecia areata; an autoimmune disease which causes an immune attack on hair follicles, especially the follicles that have pigment. It features hair loss in single or multiple areas of the scalp, face or body.

There are no symptoms with the hair loss and the scalp skin looks normal. New hair eventually grows back but it can take an extended amount of time. Alopecia areata is believed to be caused by a genetic predisposition and aggravated by environmental factors. In some cases, acute stress, or anxiety are implicated as triggers.

In rare cases, alopecia areata can become more extensive. In alopecia totalis, people experience complete loss of all hair on the scalp, whilst in alopecia universalis, there is complete loss of hair all over the body including eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, underarm and pubic hair.

While a variety treatment options are available, alopecia areata can neither be cured nor prevented. About 50 per cent of people affected by alopecia areata recover within one year, if they begin treatment early, but recurrent episodes of hair loss are likely.  

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