Heroes of Marin 2016: Innovation

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Nicole Hitchcock, co-owner of NH2 Salon in Novato, says that the catalyst for her nonprofit Hairdressers with Heart was the death of her sister, Brandy (pictured with flowers here). Photo courtesy of Hairdressers with Heart.

Heroes of Marin 2016

Innovation: Nicole Hitchcock

By David Templeton

A diagnosis of cancer is always a shock, but as the Marin-based nonprofit Hairdressers with Heart has seen over and over again, the worst part often isn’t the news that a person will be battling a life-threatening disease. It’s the eventual loss of hair that comes with chemotherapy that can shake some women to the core.

Nicole Hitchcock, co-owner of NH2 Salon in Novato and the co-founder of Hairdressers with Heart, is the recipient of this year’s Heroes of Marin Innovation award. Hitchcock and her co-workers match women in need with hairdressers who can help them feel good about themselves at a time when they are facing the loss of much more than just their hair.

“The catalyst of that program was the death of my sister,” Hitchcock says. “Brandy had cancer, and she lost her hair during chemo. I saw, through witnessing her progress, that that was incredibly disturbing to her, the loss of her hair. I thought that it was very interesting, out of everything she was going through—with an infant to take care of, battling this extremely life-threatening illness—that the thing that got to her the most, emotionally, was losing her hair.”

At the time, Hitchcock had been a hairdresser for nearly two decades, but till then she’d never so fully understood how the loss of some people’s hair, at an already emotionally vulnerable moment, could be every bit as crippling and terrifying as the diagnosis itself.

“In that moment I realized, ‘Oh my gosh. I can be of service to women going through this difficult thing,” Hitchcock recalls. “I understood that there was so much that a hairdresser could do to really and truly help, in a powerful way, in that situation. So that’s how my sister became the first person to be helped by Hairdressers with Heart—and we hadn’t even officially become Hairdressers with Heart yet.”

Working with her NH2 Salon business partner Nina Husen (both Husen and Hitchcock have ‘NH’ as initials), Hitchcock developed a very simple natural plan of action. Once chemotherapy had started and Brandy’s hair had begun thinning, her head was gently and lovingly shaved, and Brandy was quickly provided with a wig.

“She instantly felt better,” Hitchcock says. “It was like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty basic.’ She was still sick. There was nothing we could do about that, obviously. But the idea that we could make her look well was really important to her, that she could at least have enough control that people she met wouldn’t have to know she was sick.”

Through this experience, Hitchcock and Husen quickly put together a system for helping other women who were going through a similarly devastating passage. And as they continued to quietly do this kind of work in Marin, Hitchcock soon acknowledged that the need they were serving was not limited to just Marin. Women across the country and around the world were in need of similar services.

“We had something we could offer women with cancer,” Hitchcock says, “but in the hairdressing industry as a whole, there was nothing like that in place. There were no nonprofits that support hairdressers to be of service to their own clients when they experience hair loss due to cancer. There was no platform. We knew that hairdressers were dealing with it in their own way, but like us, they were making it up as they went along.”

Thus inspired, Hitchcock and Husen mapped out a very concrete outline, addressing the issues of boundaries and confidentiality, the process of conducting the initial head-shaving and the process of fitting that client with a wig.

“But the biggest part of Hairdressers with Heart,” Hitchcock says, “in terms of the value this work has to the person going through cancer, is afterwards. My sister, unfortunately, did not get to experience this, because she ended up passing away. But once treatment is over and hair starts growing in again, many women discover that that’s just as traumatic. Everyone has experienced a bad hair day. It can be a tremendous nuisance to grow hair back in again once it’s fallen out. It’s a constant bad hair day for months. Women often just don’t know what to do, or how to handle [it], and they worry that, after surviving this terrible disease, they might never feel beautiful again.”

Hairdressers with Heart, now with thousands of “Style Heroes” helping women all across the U.S., uses a very carefully thought-out program in which volunteers sign up to become “sisters” to women in need of a little beauty therapy and friendly support.

“Our ‘Style Heroes’ are hairdressers who choose, not just to give free services to their own existing clients,” Hitchcock says, “but to individuals in need right there in their community. After they’ve completed chemo and their hair comes back, the women come in once a month. It’s a little bit of haircutting, and a lot of emotional support. Women have a lot of questions, from what hair products are most appropriate to use post-chemo to what is the normal progress of hair growing back in. Our ‘Style Heroes’ are trained in how to answer all of those questions.”

That support is given for one year post-chemotherapy.

“It’s very rewarding,” Hitchcock says, “to watch someone who’s been touched by cancer as they go through this process. As the co-founder of this program, it’s incredible to realize how many women Hairdressers with Heart have helped over the years.”

Acknowledging that this life-changing nonprofit was born out of a remarkable loss, Hitchcock says she knows that Brandy, had she survived, would have been an enthusiastic “Style Hero” herself.

“She’d have loved this work,” Hitchcock says. “We all love this work. It’s the least we can do.”

For information on Hairdressers with Heart, including how to refer a program recipient and how to become a “Style Hero,” visit hairdresserswithheart.org.

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