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At Children’s Hospital Oakland, the brave go bald for childhood cancer research

on March 16, 2012

On Saturday, 44-year-old Irma Lira will walk onto a stage at Children’s Hospital Oakland, sit in a barber’s chair, and have her head shaved. Cheers will ring out as her thick black tresses, and her full, curled set of bangs, fall to the floor. A hat for donations will pass through the lively crowd, and people will eagerly fill it with money. And Lira won’t be alone—about 200 people will be shorn clean to benefit childhood cancer research through an organization called St. Baldrick’s.

Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, people all over the nation participate in St. Baldrick’s events to show solidarity with children who have cancer and have lost their hair from chemotherapy or radiation. Each participant raises money online from their friends, family and acquaintances, as though they were running a race to benefit a medical cause. (People can also continue fundraising during the event and afterward). St. Baldrick’s, which was founded over a decade ago, then gives 95 percent of the money raised directly Children’s Oncology Group for cancer research.

For the fifth year in a row, Children’s Hospital of Oakland is throwing its own St. Baldrick’s celebration—it was the first hospital in the Bay Area to adopt the practice. Held in the atrium of the hospital’s outpatient building, the event features a raffle and hours of head shaving by Oakland hair stylists who volunteer their time. It is the hospital’s most beloved event of the year. Family members of cancer patients often get their heads shaved, but hospital employees and even people with no connection to Children’s go under the scissors as well. The Oakland police and fire departments make a strong showing every year—the OPD, in particular, is known for its extreme fundraising prowess and willingness to go bald.

“Childhood cancer accounts for one percent of all cancer cases,” says Dr. Caroline Hastings, the pediatric hematologist oncologist who organizes the Oakland St. Baldrick’s event. “It’s a rare disease that gets less marketing, awareness, and also less money than other types of cancer. This organization was trying to improve that, because if we save a kid with cancer, we’re saving them an entire lifetime.”

One of Dr. Hastings’ patients is Irma Lira’s son, 17-year-old Ricky Lira-Ramirez, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009, and has since gone through multiple rounds of treatment, including a bone marrow transplant in October. Lira-Ramirez is quiet, but obviously bright, and is currently finishing his last year of high school remotely using online classes. He and his family are from Reno, NV, where Dr. Hastings has an outpatient practice she visits multiple times a week, but he and his mom have been living in an off-site house near Children’s since October. Transplant patients must stay close to the hospital for months after they receive their new marrow—their immune systems are compromised for the procedure, and they’re at risk for infection as a result. Because of this, the mother and son have been living away from home and the rest of their family since the fall.

For her part, Lira has certainly made the most of a draining, difficult experience. A short, sweet woman with a wide smile, she’s done her best to make Oakland a comfortable place for herself and for Ricky. “I feel like it’s my second home,” Lira says of Children’s Hospital Oakland as she sits at a table in her temporary digs. Lira spends much of her free time in the hospital’s Family Resource Center taking part in activities like knitting and meditating, and getting the skinny on upcoming hospital events, like St. Baldrick’s Day.

Ricky and Irma

Ricky Lira-Ramirez and his mother, Irma Lira, who will have her head shaved on Saturday.

“My hair will grow back later, but the kids don’t necessarily have that option,” she says. “When I thought about that, I knew I wanted to shave my head.” Her son used the St. Baldrick’s website to help his mom set up a page to collect donations. “I’ve answered the call to be a hero,” Lira’s site reads. “I’m having my head shaved to stand in solidarity with kids fighting cancer, but more importantly, to raise money to find cures.” Lira’s goal was $250. So far, she has raised $1,830.

Ricky admits it will be startling to see his mom without hair. “I don’t know, I’m encouraging her to do it,” he says. “But it’s her decision. It’s a little weird, but I’m supporting her all the way.”

“Irma [Lira] is an amazing woman—she’s basically lived at this hospital for the last year,” says Hastings. “Whenever you see her she’s just upbeat and positive. They’ve had a long road behind them, and they still have a long road ahead, but she’s just out there. She’s created a support group in this hospital. When she gets up there to shave we’re going to make a big deal out of it—we’re all going to hear about her story, and we’re going to pass the hat and get her another $500.”

Many people, Hastings tells me, are moved by stories like Ricky and Irma Lira’s and decide to go bald in the spur of the moment. A Children’s nurse shaved her head on a whim last year, and realized on her way home she was going to give her husband the surprise of his life. On Saturday, a 12-year-old patient will repeat last year’s performance and shave her father’s head. A teenage girl will go bald for the second time, in honor of her twin sister, who has cancer.

It’s clear that this hospital’s employees and patients, so often mired in some of the world’s most emotionally draining work, relish events like this. It gives everyone involved the opportunity to laugh a little—the barbers are known to add a touch of drama for the longer haired shavees—and at the same time, to fund cancer research. “Everyone who works here knows these kids, so when they come to this thing it becomes very meaningful to them,” says Hastings. “And for the families, who are often feeling helpless, and grateful, and scared, it makes them feel like they can do something to make a difference.”

As for Lira, she admits she’s nervous to part with her locks, but she says again and again how blessed she and Ricky feel to have this community at Children’s Hospital Oakland. “I set my fundraising goal at a low amount because I never knew I’d get all this,” she says. “But people have been so supportive of me. I feel so lucky.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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