It’s been a tough week here at Lolly’s Locks. We lost one of our recipients, Gladis. She was a bright, inspiring, thoughtful young woman. Gladis lived in California with her two teenage children and her parents. As a single mom, she had her hands full, and she had spent the last several years fighting three separate cancer recurrences.
When I took the job at Lolly’s Locks about a year and a half ago, I knew that i was in for an emotional whirlwind at times. That said, I am no stranger to cancer. As a childhood leukemia survivor, I am familiar with the experience of being a patient. I remember being poked and prodded while trying to feel good enough to keep my eyes open for Barney. I remember the taste of the dexamethasone and fighting with my parents and doctors about having to take it. I remember my mom trying to be there for my brothers’ and sister’s school and sporting events, while also trying to spend days and nights at the hospital with me. Fewer than 10 years later, my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis forced my family back into the cancer ring. She missed work daily for radiation, and she was exhausted when she came home for the day. She juggled a full-time job, doctors appointments, scans, and trips to the pharmacy with the already overwhelming task of single-handedly raising 4 children. In college, my aunt lost her 5 year battle with breast cancer and my close family faced more devastation and heartbreak than ever before.
I came into this job with my eyes wide open, fully understanding the life and death stakes of cancer. I knew that I would face loss, I knew that I would form connections with these patients, come to learn their stories, and root for them and their families.
We serve cancer patients across the country, often thousands of miles away from our office in Bethesda, Maryland. Typically, patients apply to Lolly’s Locks through our online application and either Jaime or I (or one of our volunteers) calls them to do an intake interview to assess if they qualify for our program. If they are approved, we usually work with them remotely to get them in a wig that matches their own pre-treatment hair as closely as possible, and that fits them comfortably. We work with wig makers and vendors across the country, and we spend a great deal of thought and time in determining which wig partner would be the best fit for a recipient. We then serve as the liaison between wig provider and recipient until a completed wig that suits each individual is shipped out and received. One a wig is received, if any alterations are necessary, we handle those as well.
During this process, we really get to know these patients intimately, and the time I spend connecting with recipients are some of my most precious moments at work. I cherish getting to know so many different and varied stories of the strong and inspirational cancer patients we serve. Although we spend countless hours on the phone or over email with recipients during the process of getting them in their wigs (and often beyond, as many recipients stay in touch with us well past that point), we rarely meet recipients face-to-face.
Gladis was the first recipient that I met in person. A year ago, we went out to the west coast to film our annual video and Gladis invited Jaime and I, a camera crew, and a photographer into her small, sunny family home with no hesitation. Her tiny kitchen counter was covered in snacks and bottles of water and Gatorade that she had thoughtfully put out ahead of our arrival.
I had previously seen the wigs quality of the wigs we provided to our recipients, but I had never seen a recipient wearing one in person. When Gladis put on her wig, she glowed. Her entire demeanor and body language changed, as though the real Gladis came out.
During the Lolly’s Locks photoshoot, Gladis walked through her yard naming all of the beautiful plants and flowers she had planted and tended to in her exotic garden. Inside, she beamed as she showed us all of the family photos that lined the walls of the house. She was particularly excited to show us a series of photos from a shoot that she planned as soon as she got word that she qualified for a wig through Lolly’s Locks. She laughed as the kittens that she had recently adopted playfully interrupted take after take of filming.
She spent the next few hours, both on and off camera, raving on about how influential her wig had been on her throughout all of her cervical cancer diagnoses. It wasn’t until about halfway through filming that Gladis even hinted at the fact that she wasn’t feeling well. She finished the remainder of the shoot in stride.
When Gladis wasn’t spending time with her very close-knit family, she was constantly with friends. She credited her wig with being able to enjoy a girls’ night out, to try out a new restaurant, or to her to have a birthday dinner out with her daughter. Gladis didn’t let her illness define her. She spent all her free time with her loved ones. She often posted Facebook updates about her children’s accomplishments, her friends’ birthdays, her family meetups. In her frequent social media posts, Gladis always found a way to highlight the bright side, even in posts that were about the real and harsh realities of her illness and prognosis. The tone of her posts remained so upbeat, in fact, that we were shocked to hear that she was entering hospice care a few weeks ago.
Perhaps seeing Gladis at home in her element made the news of her passing that much more difficult, as the news hit pretty hard. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for us to receive word of a death of one of our recipients. It never ceases to knock the wind out of me, and it is truly the hardest part of my job. I will remember every single one of them, as I have no doubt that each and every Lolly’s Locks recipient certainly made more of an impact on us than Lolly’s Locks could have ever made on them. We are so honored that they let us into their lives, that they share even a fraction of each of their stories with us.