Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


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Published: Irish Independent, 14 September 2013

There’s a baldness scale and I’m a six… Out of 10? Nope, out of 7.

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Hair restoration expert Dr Andre Nel has had some interesting patients in his time. There was the Harley Street doctor who’d worn a wig for twenty years, but was convinced his wife had no idea. (“I’ve never met the women,” says Nel. “But she has to have known.”)

There was the college student who persuaded his parents to pay for his procedure on the grounds that hair loss was denting his confidence and impacting on his grades. But perhaps the most bizarre case study he offers is that of a man who caved to peer pressure, somewhat belatedly, aged 65. For forty years, the man’s friends had mocked him for his lack of hair. And for forty years, this man had taken this teasing in his stride. Then one Christmas when his friends were with him in the pub, rubbing his bald head, and making the usual jokes at his expense, the man finally snapped.

“He’d had enough,” says Dr Nel. “He’d put up with this shit for four decades and he was tired of it. He decided to spend the money and get it sorted.” (It seems to me the man might have been better off just making some nicer friends. But I don’t bother to say so.)

Dr Nel’s surgery is on the top floor of the plush Therapie Clinic in Malahide, Co. Dublin. Bald since my mid-twenties, I’ve been invited here to learn about the latest advances in transplant technology. Initially, I’m a little sceptical about what I find.

There’s a statue of the Buddha in a corridor on the ground floor. In the waiting room, there are scented candles and a water dispenser with some sort of foliage floating around inside. When the receptionist refers to the doctor by his first name (“Dr Andre”, she says, will be with me in a moment) alarm bells begin to ring.

Oh God, I sigh. He’s going to put healing crystals on my forehead.

But Dr Nel, once I’ve trudged up the winding spiral staircase to his surgery, is as far removed from a touchy feely, New Age quack it is possible to get. He is an articulate South African GP, with a brisk manner and dazzling CV.

“There is a vector of aging,” he says.” Things decay exponentially. If you don’t paint and maintain a house, it cracks up. It’s the same with a human being. It’s called chronological aging and its something we’re all exposed to.”

As well as hand sanitisers and surgical equipment, Dr Nel’s clinic is equipped with a fully stocked kitchen, eating area, DVDs and a large flat screen TV. I’m rather intrigued by all of this, but opportunities to get a word in edgeways around Dr Nel are as thin on the ground as follicles on the dome of my scalp.

“Now of course,” he continues. “If you want to reverse chronological aging, there are other things you can do. You can eat healthy, exercise regularly and refrain from smoking cigarettes. But for a man, the single most dramatic step you can take is a hair transplant.”

He talks about the Norwood-Hamilton scale of baldness and asks me to crouch forward while he examines my scalp.

“You’re probably a 6,” he concludes.

Out of 10?

“No, out of 7.”

Christ. Break it to me gently, doc!

Then he makes his pitch. “Nobody needs a hair transplant,” he admits. “But in my experience, a lot of people are bothered about being bald. If you get this treatment, it will be a dramatic change. But I promise you this: it will give you a lot more self-esteem and self-confidence”

Wow, I didn’t realise I was lacking either.

“Well, maybe not you, personally. We all choose the way we want to feel in this world. But confidence is fragile. Confidence is a trust. You don’t have to have hair to feel confident, but society has made it an issue for many men.”

As a bald man, do I feel inadequate? No.

Should I? Well, that’s a trickier question.

“Your hairline frames your face and gives it a better balance, there’s no doubt about that. And there’s no question that, when it comes to making a purchase, or voting in an election, a majority of people will choose a man with a hairline over a man without a hairline.”

(Actually, there are three bald men in our present government – Phil Hogan, Michael Noonan and Ruairi Quinn – compared to just two women in total. So let’s not burn our toupees just yet.)

Ten years ago, hair transplants were slapdash and – for most people – prohibitively expensive procedures. But recently that has all changed. Today instead of transplanting the hair in clumps, known as ‘plugs’, which were clumsy and easily noticeable, Dr Nel practices a technique known as ‘strip harvesting’.

Strips of hair are removed from the ‘donor area’ (usually the back or side of the head) and then grafted onto the top of the head in strips and single follicles. While the result is a more natural look, the procedure can take up to two days to perform – hence the food and the entertainment options provided onsite.

The strips go on top of the head to create density, whereas the single follicles are transplanted into areas that catch the eye, such as the hairline and the whirl at the back of the head, to create a more natural look. “It’s 70% art and 30% science,” says Dr Nel.

While he’s talking, I can’t help casting an eye towards his own natural looking hairline. Has he had this procedure done himself, I ask? Yes, he confirms that he has.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t have guessed it.

As hair restoration techniques have become more sophisticated in recent years, male attitudes appear to be changing in tandem. Whereas men once dealt sought treatment for hair loss in a cloak and dagger fashion (hello, Bono!), when Wayne Rooney had his transplant two years ago, he made the announcement on Twitter.

“Rooney did it the perfect way,” says Dr Nel.” He came right out and said it. He said, I’m a young guy, I’m going bald, I’ve got the money – why the hell not?”

Ah yes, money. How much does all of this cost? Dr. Nel breaks it down for me. There’s a fixed rate charge of €3.95 per follicle. In my case, I would need about 3,000 follicles transplanted. But pricing works on a sliding scale, so the total cost would be somewhere just south of ten grand.

It’s a lot of money. A couple of days after my visit to Malahide, I get a call from Hair Restoration Blackrock, where Louis Walsh and James Nesbitt both had their lawns reseeded in recent years. They’ve heard I’m working on a story about hair transplants. Consultant surgeon Dr Joseph O’Connor tells me his clinic could restore my hair for €25,000.

Hmm, that’s more than double the rate I was quoted across town. Why the additional expense? Dr O’Connor states that he is unfamiliar with the Therapie Clinic or their work. But he does have a (rather pointed) rhetorical question for me.

“How much does a person pay for a car?” he asks. “It depends whether they want a Mini or a Rolls Royce.”

He says that Hair Restoration Blackrock’s staff of 17 surgeons and technicians are exclusively at the disposal of one patient at a time, suggesting the clinic is therefore able to micro-dissect follicles and achieve a more natural look than some of their rivals.

“Unless your hair transplant is of the very best quality,” he says. “You’re better off not having it done. I mean, nobody takes any notice of a bald man. Nobody takes any notice of a man whose head is shaved. But they will notice a transplant if it’s not 100% natural.”

When I relay Dr O’Connor’s comments back to Dr Nel at the Therapie Clinic in Malahide, he laughs them off. “The average price of a transplant globally is €8-10,000,” he says.” With an increase in demand and advances in technology, I’m glad to say there’s no need to charge people exorbitant prices anymore.”

Well, we could go back and forth on this all day.

In the end, The Therapie Clinic decide to put their money where their mouth is and offer me a full hair transplant for free, so that I can judge for myself whether or not their work is up to scratch. It’s a generous, potentially life changing offer. But one that, after some short consideration, I’m afraid I have to refuse.

It’s not that I doubt the quality of the clinic’s work. I don’t. And if I were a pompous hotel magnate, potential leading man, or a veteran rock star whose aging fans depended on my tousled locks to keep the memory of their youth alive, I might just take it up. But I’m not any of those things.

I’m a writer who makes a modest living poking gentle fun at the quirks and petty vanities of other people. And I’m not sure I could continue to do that if was walking around with 3,000 neck hairs surgically grafted to the top of my head. No matter how natural the effect.

So I’ll say it once, and I’ll say it loud, I’m bald and… Well, I’m not proud. But like most slaphead men, I’ve long since made my peace with it.

September 24th, 2013.

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