|Photo by Lisa Bul|
BOSTON - Shortly after starting chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer earlier this year, Paula Duffy was typing on the computer when her husband came by and patted her head in the affectionate way he has patted her countless times during the 40 years they have been together.
But this time he came up with a handful of her hair.
“We looked at each other and cried,” Duffy, 59, of Duxbury said. “As prepared as I thought I was for the hair loss, it really bothered me.”
Duffy made an appointment to buy a wig through Patricia Wrixon at The Salon at 10 Newbury in Boston. Duffy was tense when she first arrived at the salon, but Wrixon put on a brunette wig that was so strikingly close to Duffy’s auburn hair that Duffy could hardly believe how she looked.
“I’m not kidding you, that wig was me,” Duffy said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I look gorgeous.’ We were all laughing. She puts on a second shorter one and I said I wanted to take that one, too. She could have sold me 10 wigs that day, but she was this honorable person who said, ‘I think you should take only one.’”
Wrixon, who has been in the wig business for 25 years, has a knack for choosing the right match for clients - wigs with just the right color, thickness and style as their own hair, whether it’s a synthetic wig or one that includes both synthetic fiber and human hair. And if the wigs aren’t just right when they come out of the package, Wrixon works on them - colors them, trims the hair and even flattens the wig at times to make it look as close to the person’s true hair as she can get.
“Most people really and truly want to look like themselves,” Wrixon, 66, said. “I have a really good friend with a beautiful blond wig and people are always saying to her, ‘I love your hair. Who colors your hair?"
Because Wrixon works with many women who have lost their hair to chemotherapy treatments or to Alopecia, she knows they don’t want to be sitting in her chair, and she always acknowledges with her customers how difficult it must be.
“I never make it into this great makeover session,” Wrixon said. “This is a scary thing for women. On top of going through an ordeal and not feeling well, their hair falls out. At some point, this becomes the burden. It’s something they can’t hide and it’s out of their control. For me, it’s all about allowing them to maintain some dignity around a difficult situation.”
Duffy said she was amazed not only with Wrixon’s wig skills, but with her soft-spoken and compassionate style. “I felt such warmth there, but not in a way that makes you feel like ‘Oh, you’re sick,’” she said.
Wrixon understands that women who need wigs are looking for privacy. After her clients check in at The Salon at 10 Newbury, Wrixon escorts them to a separate private suite down the hall.
“It’s so confidential that I don’t even say hello to people when I see them out unless they say hello to me in case they don’t want to explain how they know me,” Wrixon said.
Many of Wrixon’s clients - including women from the South Shore - are referred to her by Boston hospitals. Most of the time, Wrixon shaves clients’ heads - often before they have lost much hair, partly because the wig feels more comfortable and fits better when the head is shaved.
Wrixon owned a hair salon in Worcester in the 1980s when a close childhood friend got cancer and lost his hair to treatments. Wrixon, eager to help, ordered a wig for him, but she was horrified with the product she received.
“It didn’t look anything like him,” she said. “It looked cheap, like plastic. I felt really inadequate because I wanted it to be so right. It got me interested in doing this for people.”
The technology has changed a lot since Wrixon received that awful wig for her friend decades ago. “My job is so much easier now because the products are so much better,” she said.
Wrixon’s wigs run anywhere from $400 to a few thousand. Insurance often covers part of the cost. But when it doesn’t, she has been known to provide hair pieces free of charge to patients who can’t afford them.
Shannon McBride, 37, of Hopkinton had extensive treatment for leukemia as a young child, the effects of which have left her with thinned hair. McBride is unable to work, and insurance won’t cover her wig, so Wrixon donated first a wig and later a hairpiece to her.
“You go out in public and you feel naked,” McBride said of her hair before she received a wig. “When you start losing hair, people assume you’re sick. When I got the wig, I felt great. It looks so natural.”
Wrixon said her work is satisfying, knowing she can lift the spirits of women who are going through a rough time.
“It makes me feel good to know I’ve learned to do something where I can help someone feel better,” she said. “I see people coming in tense and then saying, ‘This is doable. I can live with this.’ I can see that there is a sense of relief when they leave. My goal is to help them not stay home. They should go out to dinner, pick up their kids at school, live life.”
Dina Gerdeman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.