14 Aug 2013

by Minerva Romero Arenas, MD, MPH

Since medical school, I had an interest in oncology. Our professors frequently invited patients and families to come and share with our class how they were personally affected by disease. I remember meeting a survivor of glioblastoma multiforme despite having been initially given a poor prognosis. Another family shared the heartache after losing a child to neuroblastoma and their efforts in raising his siblings. I was inspired to do something to show support for patients like the ones who shared their stories with us – the patients whom I one day hoped to treat. Being on a limited student budget, I had to think outside the box since I could not afford to make “significant” monetary donations. One day I decided I would donate my hair so someone else could have a wig.

Having had long tresses for decades, I must admit I was hesitant to go for a short bob. The fear quickly faded, as the stylist transformed my ponytails into “locks of love.” The selflessness I felt, as I placed those long ponytails in the mail, let me know that it was one of the best ways I could contribute outside of my dedication to the medical field. I first donated to Locks of Love, though I have since switched to the Beautiful Lengths program.

Since that time, I have donated my thick, brown locks again. However, the next time became a lot more personal. During my first week of surgery residency, one of my surgery attendings made me burst out in tears after a teaching conference. Now, there is an unspoken rule that there’s no crying in surgery! (just like in baseball). But my tears were not the result of a terrible pimping session or getting chewed out for making any mistake– I had just learned that this surgeon, my professor, had terminal cancer. Having been given less than six months, she already had beat the odds a few years from initial diagnosis. Over the next year and half, she became a mentor and had a great influence on my early development as a young surgeon. I did not think twice about donating my hair again when she faced a debulking surgery for a recurrence. During our last conversation, she smiled when I told her about the donation.

My hair grew long again; it had been more than two years since the last donation. What a perfect metaphor for my progression in residency, and the adage that a tincture of time is sometimes the best medicine. Then I found out a colleague was facing a cancer recurrence. I prepared to visit my favorite hairdresser. He gets the most length by separating the hair into at least two ponytails. That day I mailed two ponytails, 12 inches each, of solidarity. Priceless.

Dr. Minerva Romero Arenas is a general surgery resident at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and is completing a research fellowship at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. She obtained her MD and MPH from The University of Arizona, and studied Cellular Biology & French at Arizona State University. She is also involved in mentoring and public policy. On her personal time she enjoys spending time with friends and family, especially when it involves good food.

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