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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Courtney Karami gives the finishing touches to Gabey Williams hair at Sunday’s St. Baldrick’s Foundation Shave-Off.

Bald is beautiful when it benefits ailing kids

Steve Penhollow | The Journal Gazette
Indiana University medical student Amy Truong has her head shaved to show help with kids who have cancer.

– Ronny Leeper, 7, came from South Bend just to have his head shaved.

Ronny was one of more than a dozen people who embraced baldness on Sunday as a way of showing solidarity with kids who have cancer.

The fundraiser, called the St. Baldrick’s Foundation Shave-Off, happened at Lutheran Hospital’s Lutheran Cancer Center.

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a non-profit organization that raises money for childhood cancer research.

The shave-off was organized by Indiana University medical student Amy Truong.

Troung said a friend hosted a similar event at another medical school and it “started (her) thinking.”

“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it,” she said. “It almost became an obsession for me.”

In the medical profession, “empathy is such a big thing,” she said.

“I am a pretty healthy person,” Truong said before the event. “I have not gone through much of anything. I can’t imagine being in middle school and being sick – not being sure how long I am going to make it and whether I have care or not. It is something that seems like it would be tremendously difficult to go through. So maybe having my head shaved will help me understand a bit about what some patients go through.”

Dennis O’Brien, pediatric oncologist for the Lutheran Medical Group, says cancer in children and adolescents is rare.

Because of this, “funding is hard to come by,” he said.

O’Brien said organizations like the St. Baldrick’s Foundation play a key role in raising funds and raising awareness.

Since 2000, the foundation has raised $146 million through head-shaving events, according to the St. Baldrick’s website.

Ronny said his decision to get his head shaved started as an interest in Locks of Love, the non-profit organization that provides wigs and other hairpieces to disadvantaged children suffering from medically related hair loss.

Ronny’s sister, Bel, has twice donated her hair to Locks of Love, according to mom Liz Leeper.

“She has a heart that just wants to give,” Leeper said of her daughter.

Ronny wanted to follow suit, but Locks of Love requires that donors have at least 10 inches of hair to give.

“He was never going to get 11 inches,” she said.

So Ronny said he asked his mom “to Google ‘Locks of Love for boys.’ ”

That’s how they learned about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and Sunday’s shave-off.

Ronny managed to raise $1,100 through fundraising efforts at his school and a lemonade stand, Liz Leeper said.

Asked what he planned to say to his classmates about his shorn head, Ronny said, “That’s a hard thing. I don’t know.”

Some of Truong’s fellow med students said they intended to encourage conversation by wearing a yellow button that says, “Ask Me Why I’m Bald.”

Michael Maurer of Richmond said he has always had an affinity with kids and plans to go into some pediatric specialty eventually.

“Every dollar raised here today will fund research into more treatments and better treatments,” he said. “This will help save kids’ lives. Getting your head shaved is a very small thing in the context of all that.”

Of course, societal norms being what they are, it is one thing for a man to get his head shaved and quite another for a woman to make the same decision.

Casey Whitcomb of Hoagland said she was inspired to take part in the Shave-Off by a blog called Rockstar Ronan, written by a mother who lost her son to cancer.

“It touched me deeply,” she said. “It seemed like such a little thing to get my head shaved.”

Whitcomb says she has “always done weird things but this is definitely the most radical.”

After most of his hair was gone, Ronny said his head felt good but a little itchy.

Truong laughed at a cell phone picture of her bald self and then said she had no regrets.

“I am completely thankful for everything I have in life,” she said.