Dean Kahn

Man’s life with alopecia: Ponytail, to patches, to baldness

Writer and Ferndale teacher Rob Slater decided to shave his head after his alopecia left a bald patch above his forehead. In 2013, Slater posed for this picture to accompany his chapter in a serial science fiction story that ran in The Bellingham Herald.
Writer and Ferndale teacher Rob Slater decided to shave his head after his alopecia left a bald patch above his forehead. In 2013, Slater posed for this picture to accompany his chapter in a serial science fiction story that ran in The Bellingham Herald. The Bellingham Herald

Growing up in the heavy-metal hotbed of Grays Harbor, Rob Slater dreamed of playing in a band while sporting a rock ’n’ roller’s full head of hair.

He played in some groups but had to keep his light-brown hair short because he was a high school wrestler. After graduating, he grew his hair long and pursued his growing interest in theater.

When he was about 21, he got a buzz cut to portray a soldier in a play in Aberdeen. His hair lay in a clump on the floor, but his attention was elsewhere — at the back of his head, where the razor had revealed a silver dollar-size patch of white hair.

The patch was a sign of the disease alopecia areata. Slater’s immune system, he would learn, was attacking his hair follicles.

When Slater moved to Bellingham to study education and theater at Western Washington University, the white patch stayed buried again beneath his hair that reached well down his back.

He landed a teaching job after he trimmed his hair, but kept his ponytail. While teaching at Clearview High School in Ferndale, the white patch was joined by other patches that started becoming bald spots. Some spots regrew brittle white hair even as other patches appeared.

One of the students started calling him Patches, and some girls in his classes discussed shaving their heads as a show of support. They didn’t, but Slater decided to shave his head after a patch became visible above his forehead.

Slater, 48, now teaches English, creative writing, drama and media arts at Windward High School in Ferndale. He still shaves his head from time to time because patches of hair still show up.

“Instead of patches of baldness, I now have patches of hair, and they’re getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Alopecia areata impacts males and females of all ages, including children. Slater said it took him several years to become comfortable with his baldness but presumes his experience as a man with the disease was easier than for girls or women who have it.

“Baldness is at least accepted and expected of our gender,” he said. “There were certainly times that I felt strange, or not very happy, about the fact that I didn’t have my hair anymore.”

Other than wishing for longer eyelashes and eyebrows, Slater is comfortable with his new look.

“I like being the bald guy with the hat,” he said.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/dean-kahn.

Rob Slater’s alpoecia story, and others

Rob Slater writes about his experience with alopecia in “Head-On: Stories of alopecia,” a collection of more than 75 accounts by people with the disease. The book, compiled by Skagit County resident Deeann Graham, can be ordered at headonpublishing.com and is available at Village Books.

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