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Rugby team goes bald for child cancer research

Volunteer stylist Amy Torres shaves the head of a member of the Duke Rugby club team to support childhood cancer research.
Volunteer stylist Amy Torres shaves the head of a member of the Duke Rugby club team to support childhood cancer research.

Nearly forty heads worth of hair lay heaped on the lobby floor of Duke Children’s Hospital Friday afternoon—a quantity that volunteer stylist Amy Torres said she has never witnessed in her years cutting hair at Raleigh’s Salon Blu.

Eight Duke physicians and about 30 Duke Rugby club team members had just shaved their heads to support childhood cancer research.

The event, hosted by Duke Children’s Hospital for the first time ever, helped raise funds for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a non-profit organization that coordinates worldwide head-shaving events to provide grants for research in pediatric cancer. And through collected donations, Duke Rugby team members raised $14,494 for donning bald heads–the largest collection of funds raised by any sports team in the state.

“The participants took it to a whole new level,” said Jane Hoppen, director of partnerships at St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Dr. Daniel Wechsler, division chief of Duke’s pediatric hematology-oncology department, was the first to bare his scalp, cheered on by physicians and fellow participants as each dark lock fell to the floor.

Although he reacted with surprise to a photo of his bald head—while his young daughters observed with wide eyes and hand-covered mouths—Wechsler said going bald was the least he could do.

“St. Baldrick’s has been very supportive of our research and clinical programs here at Duke,” Wechsler said. “My faculty has gotten grants from St. Baldrick’s, and we feel like this is a small way to give back to them and also to show solidarity for our patients.”

Wechsler, who has worked in the hematology-oncology department for 20 years, added that unlike physicians in the emergency room or intensive care unit who only see patients once, he and his fellow pediatric oncologists stay with patients during a “key and stressful” part of their lives, remaining in touch for at least 10 years after their diagnoses.

Duke Rugby head coach Jay Wisse said he proposed the fundraising idea to the rugby team earlier this year, adding that the players have responded with enthusiasm and dedication.

The team has made efforts to become more involved in community service and not make the team “just about rugby,” said senior Jacob Wood, vice president of Duke Rugby.

“This will hopefully strengthen the bonds between us and also with the people that we play for—the Duke community and people at Duke Hospital,” Wood said.

The event was a poignant scene for Holly Barber of Greensboro, N.C., whose 20-month old son Matheson has been in remission for nine months after being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of 5 months.

 Holding Matheson in her arms, Bridgett Campbell—a clinical nurse in pediatric hematology-oncology, who admitted the child to Duke Hospital just after Christmas Day a year ago—helped him clasp the hair buzzer and shave the head of Dr. Brian Belyea, a first-year fellow in the division who helped treat Matheson.

“It’s payback time,” Belyea remarked.

Despite the cheers and laughter, several participants noted that temporary hair loss is not a choice for the millions of children who face cancer  

“You develop bonds with other parents who have children with cancer,” Barber said.  “But it’s hard—you want to know people are going through it, but at the same time, the statistics are just bad. So you meet families, and in a way, you lose families too.”

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