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UC neurosurgeon helps adults keep their hair after brain surgery

Chantelle Howell WCPO.jfif
Posted at 10:30 PM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 23:26:21-04

CINCINNATI — Brain surgery is often a life-altering experience, but UC Health neurosurgeon Dr. Matthew Garrett is determined that it doesn’t have to change the way patients see themselves. By taking proper care during surgery, he says adult patients can get the treatment they need without losing their hair.

When Chantelle Howell learned she had a brain tumor, her hair was the last thing on her mind.

“There’s a lot to process and deal with when you’re facing a cancer diagnosis, and I didn’t have to walk around wearing it on my head, at least not initially. I think that was helpful,” Howell said.

A UC labor and delivery nurse for 13 years, Howell said she began experiencing “strange headaches” at work. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first, but she began to feel nauseated as the headaches continued.

“Went into a patient's room and was apparently repeating myself,” she said. “I don't remember doing that."

The patient then told another nurse, prompting Howell to schedule an MRI. The scan revealed that Howell was living with a brain tumor.

"The only thing I really remember my GP saying at the time were the words, I think she said, ‘extensive and life-changing,’ and that's really all that I remember,” she said.

A few days later, Howell began treatment with Dr. Garrett.

"When I first met Chantelle, she had a very large part of her brain involved with a low-grade glioma -- far more than we could ever remove,” he said.

At first, Howell was hesitant to go forward with surgery.

“I used to say that I would not choose surgery if there were anything else because I’ve seen plenty of surgeries and they can be pretty brutal," she said. "Someone cutting into your brain is pretty scary.”

Garrett was able to remove the worst part of the tumor that appeared to be progressing, meaning he could start the process of helping her live with it -- and he could save Howell's long hair.

Garrett said that pediatric brain surgeries almost always preserve a patient’s hair.

“A lot of them are very highly functional and will be going back to their grade school, junior high, high school to be with their friends," he said. "The idea that one could go back to school and not have to carry that stigma on top of everything else you have to deal with seemed like a nice thing, but not limited to children.”

Typically, an adult patient's head is shaved to prevent infection, but as long as the hair stays clean, studies show those infections can still be avoided without shaving.

It's a way to keep spirits high and help people feel normal as they undergo a life-changing surgery. Out of the hundreds of surgeries he's performed, dozens of Garrett's patients prefer to keep their hair.

"It does require a little bit more planning, a little bit more time in closing the skin in a way that is well-approximated," he said. "But, I think the increased overtime is pretty minimal relative to the benefits.”

Because of the radiation following her surgery, Howell did go on to lose much of her hair, which has since grown back. Her condition is stable, and she encourages anyone getting a similar surgery to ask their doctor about hair-saving options.

After her surgery, Howell said the care taken to keep her looking like herself was a source of comfort to her and her family.

“When I came out, I just remember them being so touched by the care that Dr. Garrett showed, like that you’d washed my hair, and I believe they said you even braided it,” Howell said.