By Rodrigo Garrido
Marcelo Avatte, a renowned Italian-Chilean hair stylist, could have never imagined that his own son would motivate him to start making and donating natural hair wigs for children who suffer from cancer.
Avatte came up with the idea in February 2006, while watching his four-year-old son Vittorio undergo treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago.
He was moved by the sight of young girls losing their hair to chemotherapy. He saw the anguish they suffered and the way it affected their fight for recovery.
“I could see the pain, in particular of the girls who lost their hair, during treatment, how it affected their self-esteem and the depression they fell into. That was what motivated me to begin this project with my son.”
Avatte says just seeing the smile that a natural wig brought to the a patient’s face when they started to comb through it as if it were their own hair was enough for him to continue the project.
“That was when I realized that the child’s outlook on life and recovery were greater with the wig than if they continued to hide their head with scarves,” he said.
He recalls the pain he felt when Vittorio lost his hair: “That was the most painful wig I ever made.” Today, Vittorio is a healthy young boy and fully recovered, and Avatte’s project is as strong as ever.
As I photographed this project, I witnessed the immediate change in girls and women from the moment they wore their wigs and styled their hair.
Their faces were magically transformed, smiles emerged and their natural femininity took over. They straightened their posture as they walked and raised their heads, shedding off that downcast appearance they had before.
Isidora Serrano, one of the patients I photographed before and after she received her wig, walked out of the hospital with her new hair and said: “I can feel the cool wind in my hair as I used to before. I feel so good.”
Another younger patient, Alexandra, close to turning 5 and recovering from surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, played with her new head of hair by turning her head from side to side, swinging her hair across her face.
Avatte has donated more than 300 wigs since 2009, by campaigning on TV and radio to get women of all ages to donate their hair for a noble cause – a natural hair wig in Chile costs about $670, and many patients cannot afford them.
All that is needed to make a natural wig is healthy hair at least 35 cm (13.8 inches) long that is not overly dry and has no split ends. Neither color nor waviness is important, but it mustn’t be tangled. At least three donors are needed for each wig.
Everything is handmade, with special dedication from the staff who know that the wigs are for young girls with cancer, and that this will help their self-esteem and recovery.
Avatte said that for girls around the age of 13 and older it’s much more frustrating than boys to see their hair fall out after under than three months of treatment. They feel excluded and will often isolate themselves from society once they feel that others are staring at them.
For him, that’s the moment when the wig can make a difference.