Monday, May 2, 2011

Hair-raising Tales Part 2: The snip heard around the world.

Isaiah with the baby 'fro (and God-daddy Shannon)

When Isaiah turned one, Harry busted out a pair of clippers and buzzed his baby afro straight down to a big-boy haircut. That cute little lop-sided poof that he'd become known for in those first twelve months was officially black history. Isaiah had a head full of loose curls that, for the most part, were very easy to manage. I slightly mourned the loss of his baby look, but felt my mama-bird chest swell a bit when he ran over to me that day looking like a complete big boy.

Now Zachary? His hair adventure was a bit different. Unlike his brother, he had a tighter wave pattern and had taken a liking to rubbing the sides of his hair and eyebrows while sleeping. For several months, he looked like some eyebrowless dude with several tiny little cotton balls pasted onto his head with clean patches on the temples. While it definitely wasn't making much of a fashion statement, it never bothered me so much. But Harry? Lawd. It annoyed Mr. Former-Military-Dude Harry a lot. So. . . . Zachary didn't quite make it to the year mark before getting snipped and shaped with scissors. And by his first birthday? Fuggeddaboudit. That kid looked like a thirty-five year-old man.

Baby buzz, Manning style.


This is actually a bit unusual from a cultural standpoint. For several non-medical and non-religious reasons, there is this understanding amongst black folks that you don't go cutting your kid's hair before their first birthday. The most popular of the non-medical/non-religious reasons is this one:

"Now you know if you cut that boy's hair before he turn a year he ain't never gon' talk, don't you?"

To which I have had to say on more than one occasion, "Uuuuhhhhh, yeah. Okay." For some cultures it is religious. Like, I know a few people of Jewish faith (Orthodox) who've told me that cutting hair before three is a spiritual no-no. And then there's been a few of my Punjabi friends who weren't keen on cutting their hair at all. But see, with my people it ain't (really) religious. Either way--the rule that someone wrote in the front of somebody's bible way back when about "no haircuts in black males before age one" might as well be the fifth gospel. For real.

I guess the reason I don't get so bent out of shape about the whole early haircut thing is because my father gave my older brother the full-on military fade complete with a razor line in the front when the dude was no more than nine months. Blasphemy, I say!

The pre-one year old buzz ~ Dad cutting Will's hair in 1967

Anyways. Despite it being a non-medical/non-religious/non-logic based and purely cultural doctrine, it is a gospel that my people of all socioeconomic and educational levels sho' nuff uphold at just about all costs. And the good news is that most folks know that.

Most folks.

Which reminds me of a story. . . . .like to hear it? Here it go!


Residency ~ Winter 1999

an ICU room

When I was a third year resident, I was taking care of this beautiful little baby boy who I'll call JaQuon in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU.) He had been born extremely premature and had spent much of his eleven month life in hospitals for respiratory difficulties and surgeries. Seeing him lying in bed with tubes entering and exiting multiple parts of his tiny body was hard. He looked like a sweet cherub that had been dipped perfectly in chocolate with smooth, unblemished skin and a loose, fluffy halo of jet black hair. I loved touching it; it felt exactly like what I'd imagine a cumulus cloud would if my hand were long enough to reach it. Cute was an understatement. JaQuon was angelic.

In addition to him being very sick most of the time, he had a fairly young mother who seemed completely overwhelmed 99% of the time. This manifested as difficult interactions with the staff, complaints to administration, and threats to sue the hospital just about every other day. Between going to work and taking care of her other three children, she would blow in like gangbusters every evening grilling the entire team about every detail of JaQuon's care. As the primary resident caring for him, at times it was rough.

Fortunately, my attending that month was wonderful. He had the insight to teach us all that this mother simply loved her child and was doing the best she could. He helped us to look at the situation not as a threat, but as one that was complex. Every day we were reminded that it was a parent's right to ask questions, and that there was nothing natural about walking into a PICU to see your child several days in a row. I always remembered that lesson.

But caring for JaQuon was still kind of hard.

After nearly two weeks, I'd finally built an excellent rapport with JaQuon's mom. I diligently called her twice per day, and even worked with the nurse manager to have the same RNs rotated in caring for him when they were at work. He was slowly improving, and fortunately, those interrogations every evening became easier and easier. Eventually, JaQuon's mother could even be seen smiling while talking to us and one day, she even brought us a cake to show her appreciation. With every passing day as we turned down the settings on JaQuon's ventilator, we all felt proud of the progress we'd made with both him and his mother. Those three critical care nurses and I became like four fiercely protective aunties over every aspect of JaQuon's care, with love woven into every detail.

Finally, the day came when my attending gave the thumbs up when we asked if JaQuon could be extubated during our morning rounds. His oxygen supplements were minimal as were his pressures on the ventilator, and our trials of unassisted breathing were completely successful. We all high fived and hugged each other, knowing that our baby was going in the right direction.

A young nurse named Sara (who was a part of the four aunties) rushed off to her locker and returned with a tiny garment bag. She peeled back the plastic to reveal this adorable little three piece outfit, complete with socks. There was a baby blue onesie with "Mommy's Little Angel" embroidered across the front in a royal blue that perfectly matched the precocious big-boy sweatsuit that accompanied it.

"I've been saving this up for his extubation day!" Sara gushed.

I will never forget how moved we all were--even the attending choked back a few tears. It remains one of the sweetest gestures I've ever seen.

I knew that I would be in clinic that afternoon, but because I was on call that night, I was pretty sure I'd get to be there when JaQuon's mother blew in. I was purposely vague when I called her that day; I wanted her to be surprised when she saw her baby boy's sweet brown cheeks gurgling and cooing instead of covered in tape and masked by an endotracheal tube.

I hugged Sara and wiped a few tears. "That's awesome!" I said.

"I can't wait to see his mother's face!" Sara replied "I think I'm going to hang around until she gets here." Although her shift was ending at 3PM, this kind of investment in patients was not the least bit unusual for critical care nurses. Anyone who knows a critical care nurse would tell you that.

And so, as the story goes, we all applauded when sweet JaQuon was uneventfully extubated. The respiratory therapist even pointed out that he'd cut a tooth, which made us even giddier for his mother's arrival. I floated to clinic that afternoon, doing my best to imagine the elation that baby J's mom would surely have in just a few short hours.

I finally finished up with my last patient, and instead of dragging my feet due to the dread of taking call, I sprinted toward the unit as fast as I could. I'd made good time, and made it to the nurse's station just as the clock struck 5 PM.

"Is J's mom here yet? Did I miss it?" I panted.

"Nope, she's on her way so you're just in time!" Lisa, the other auntie, replied with a smile. "Girl, Sara's been fussing over him all day. Did you see that outfit, Kim?" Lisa placed her hand on her bosom and shook her head.

"Adorable," I laughed. "Even Dr. B cried a little when she took it out!"

"Honey, bless Sara's heart! His mother is going to be so happy," Lisa went on, "They've been through so much. It'll be great to see her get him home soon. Dr. B says he can go to the regular ward tomorrow and should be home in the next 48 hours."

"Awesome." I looked over toward Sara who could be seen adjusting his clothing through the glass partition in JaQuon's room. "Did she put it on him yet?"

"Yes, girl. He looks like a little man!" Lisa responded while drawing up a saline flush. She pushed the air bubbles out of the syringe, squirting a few drops of saline on the counter. As she reached for a disinfectant wipe to clean it off, she added, "Go look at him. You're going to die!"

I followed Lisa toward his room, and felt myself thinking how happy I was that this very senior critical care nurse would be in the PICU with me that evening. She pulled back the heavy glass sliding door and stood with me at the foot of the bed. She looked over at me to see my reaction.

Tears immediately filled my eyes as, for the first time, I saw JaQuon looking like a regular little baby boy. "Oh sweetie. . ." I murmured. The outfit hid some of the IV lines and every trace of adhesive had been removed from his face which was now glistening from Vaseline. The outfit fit him perfectly, and the pastel color shirt beautifully brought out the yellow undertones in his cocoa complexion.

"He does look like a little man!" I gasped while walking closer to him. I looked up at Sara and smiled warmly. We all glanced at each other while blowing him air kisses and taking exaggerated sighs. I leaned in close to him and said, "Hey there, handsome boy!" And he responded with a smile that melted my heart right there on the spot. I cocked my head and took a mental picture of the image.

That's when I noticed something.

I furrowed my eyebrows and grabbed a pair of gloves. Carefully, lifting the back of JaQuon's head, I confirmed what I hoped and prayed wasn't what I thought it was. The look of terror was all over my face.

"Honey, are you okay?" Lisa asked with a concerned expression.

I turned J's head from side to side, dropped my head and just shook it slowly. I thought I was going to be sick. "Lawd Jesus."

"What? What!" Lisa demanded.

"Kim, what's wrong?" Sara joined in. They both shot each other worried glances.

"Sara," I said flatly, "please tell me that. . . ."-- I drew in a deep sigh--"please tell me that you didn't cut JaQuon's hair."

"I. . .I . . what. . .I mean, I did just to get him. ."

When she saw me squeeze my eyes tightly and wince, she knew then that this was a problem. And not just a little problem either.

"Oh shit!" Lisa exclaimed while sweeping her blond bob behind her ears to see better. She let out a nervous laugh and then covered up her mouth.

"I . . .did I. . . I thought. . .I mean, I thought Mom would appreciate it," Sara replied as her eyes quickly filled up with tears.

Even though I already knew very well that he was, I scanned the band on his arm to confirm that JaQuon was indeed less than a year old. Eleven months, to be exact. With a newly clipped coif to replace his formerly abundant lamb's wool halo. I wiped my hand over my face and drew a deep breath. All the while I was thinking, No wonder everyone said he looked like a "little man." Sara had cut his hair down like he was grown-ass man!

Sara's cheeks were beet red, deeply contrasting her porcelain skin and her bottom lip was quivering uncontrollably. I wanted to reassure her but I couldn't. Lisa wasn't helping. She kept saying "Oh shit!" like a broken record, which made Sara grow more and more anxious.

"Where'd you put his hair?" I finally asked.

"Excuse me?"

"His hair, Sara. Where is it?"

Sara pointed at the wastebasket and then looked back at me. "Sara, we've got to get the hair and at least put it in a bag for Mom. Come on, let's hurry up." I took the top off of the trash can and prepared to wade into it.

"Do you really think his mother is going to be upset? I didn't hardly cut that much. Just--"

"Sara," I interrupted, "I know you meant well. But honestly, I don't even know another way to say this. Black people generally don't cut their kids' hair before they turn one. For some people, it's like a really big deal."

Lisa flushed JaQuon's IV and added, "That's not even just a black thing, Kim. Most folks I know are pretty OCD about their kid's first hair cut. Geeze, Sara. . .what were you thinking?"

"But it was a trim," Sara insisted. "Maybe Mom won't even notice." I raised my eyebrows and cast my eyes downward in a way that said, The hell she won't. Sara wrung her hands nervously and shrugged. "I suppose I'll just wait around in case it's an issue. I mean, it's the right thing to do." No one objected.

And so we sat. And sat. And sat. For what felt like forever, but was really only like an hour and twenty minutes. Me, quietly writing progress notes. Lisa, calculating meds and updating her charting. The other two RN's on the shift acting like they weren't waiting for all hell to break loose.

Finally, the call bell began chiming signaling that a non-employee was waiting to be let in. In the camera, there was JaQuon's mother shifting from side to side on her probably tired feet. When the doors first whooshed open, she blew inside like always. Instead of the relaxed smile that she'd been offering us as of late, her face was twisted and preoccupied.

"Hey there," I greeted her, "How was your day?"

"Hectic," she replied while vigorously scrubbing her hands at the sink. She was all business today. "How'd J do today?"

I stood tall and smiled wide--determined to soften things up. I made a gesture with my hand to demonstrate a tube being pulled from someone's throat. "He did great."

Mom swung her head around toward his room and then quickly put her eyes back on me. I nodded and gave her a thumbs up. In a flash, she dropped everything and ran over to JaQuon's room.

We stood outside of the glass watching the whole train wreck unfold like some kind of bad, slow motion silent movie. It went something like this:

  • Mom runs to the room.
  • Mom sees JaQuon without the endotracheal tube in his mouth.
  • Mom covers her mouth and starts crying.
  • Mom approaches the bed and notices his outfit.
  • Mom places both hands exaggeratedly over her chest and cries more.
  • Mom looks out of the glass at us and mouths the words, "Oh my God!"
  • Mom bends over the railing to kiss his face and rub his skin.
  • Mom plants a soft kiss on his forehead.
  • Mom freezes.
  • Mom steps back.
  • Mom steps forward.
  • Mom squints her eyes and then lifts JaQuon's head.
  • Mom's mouth moves and I can make out what she said: "What the (expletive.)"
  • Mom spins around and pulls back the glass door fast and furious.
  • Mom is not happy.
"Who cut my baby's hair? Who in the (expletive) cut my BABY'S HAIR!?!?"

Here we go.

"I wanted him to look nice for you and I--"

"You CUT my baby's HAIR? What the (EXPLETIVE!) WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?" Mom exploded. "You CUT his hair? What would make you cut his hair!?!"

I stared squarely at my clogs, all the while wishing Sara would say nothing more. Nothing she could say was going to make this better. Lisa was equally frozen. Sara was on her own.

"I just wanted him to look handsome when you--"

"He WAS handsome! I can't believe you CUT MY BABY HAIR!!!" Mom started crying, but not a sad weep. It was more of a mad, tired cry complete with chest heaves and with tears that seemed to be made of boiling water.

Lisa and I completely threw Sara under the bus with this one. Although we stood next to her in solidarity (and in fear of moving), we didn't dare utter a sound. Not a single peep. This new one getting torn was all hers. Or so I thought.

"And where was you?" Mom suddenly asked shifting gears toward me. Next thing I knew she was ice-grilling me of all people.

Say whaaa..?

"Excuse me?"

"WHERE WAS YOU? WHY YOU LET THIS WHITE LADY CUT MY BABY HAIR?!?" she demanded. Her use of the word "white" made everyone uncomfortable. Even JaQuon squirmed a little in his bed.

"Uuhhhh, I didn't realize that--"

"You 'POSED TO BE LOOKING OUT FOR HIM. Especially YOU!" she yelled while pointing at me for emphasis. "I can't believe you let this lady cut JaQuon hair like that! I can't believe you of all people let this happen!"


And just like that, she rolled her eyes and marched out of the unit.

It was crazy. As crazy as it sounds, even. No. Crazier.

I never forgot that day. It was so complicated and awkward. Hands down one of the most uncomfortable moments I've had in clinical medicine. It has always served to remind me of how important it is to consider culture in our actions, but also how even the very best intentions can go awry. Poor Midwest Sara had no idea that cutting JaQuon's hair would become such a debacle. And never in a million years did it occur to me that the complexities of race and trust issues in health care were playing such a pivotal role in his mother's expectations of me, her son's doctor.

So how did it end, you ask? Well, the good news is that JaQuon continued to improve, was transferred to the floor, and was subsequently discharged in 48 hours just as predicted. The even better news was that I was working with Lisa, the senior critical care nurse, that night. She smoothed that whole horrid situation over like buttercream frosting over a Betty Crocker box cake.

How you ask? First, she took Mom into a quiet room and simply hugged her and listened to her. She acknowledged how tired the mother was and how hard it was to be in the situation. She gently explained that Sara only wanted to help and apologized on behalf of the whole team. She then presented Mom with a little gift box containing JaQuon's hair. And Mom wept and wept. Lisa was amazing. While I'd most appreciated her ability to crack the whip during a code or smell sick-sick a mile away, this night gave me new insight on the wonder of experienced nurses. And on the wisdom of folks over the age of fifty in general.


I'm not sure there's a real moral to this whole story. Matter of fact, if you figure out one, let me know what it is. But even if you don't, it's still a great story. Oh yeah, and that part about your baby not talking if they get a haircut before they turn one? I have nonstop evidence that proves that that nonmedical/nonreligious theory AIN'T TRUE.

Daddy strikes again in 2006 ~ this time with his grandson, Isaiah.


Hey, what's the hair rules with your people? Are there any?


  1. That story is great. And that photo of your dad and your brother in '67? I'm in love.

    We stick to the no haircuts before one year rule, but more out of tradition and holding onto their baby-ness than anything else.

  2. That story...oh my.
    I find it hard to believe that any nurse would cut a baby's hair. I mean- why? White, black, or green? Not to demean Sara but hair is just a very symbolic thing in almost every culture. A baby's first haircut is almost a holy ritual. I would have been as pissed off as that mama and I am of the beige race. Ecru. Okay. White. Whatever.

    I am so glad that there was a happy ending here but I think the true moral of the story is that yes, we all need to be aware of cultural differences, and have respect for them.

  3. Both my babies had curly golden baby-hair, and after they got their hair cut, their "regular" hair was straight. The funny thing is, I only have a vague idea of how old they were when I cut their hair the first time (my daughter was probably 4, my son was about 1). I kept a lock of each, just so they have proof that they were once blond (because everyone in our families were blond children who turned into adults with drab brown-colored hair).

    Loved the story. Black hair is fascinating to me :)

  4. Wow, I never knew any of this so thanks for sharing! :)
    My condolences for the tornadoes that ya'll have been experiencing and suffering through over the past week - my thoughts and prayers are with you.

    P.S. My little brother keeps letting me to stop saying 'ya'll' (something that I've picked up from you). His interpretation of it is that I 'sound like a hillbilly', haha!

  5. People have been talking about Macy's hair since the day she was born.... I don't really "get" it, but I do think it is beautiful :) I waited to cut her hair until she was one, but I didn't have a reason, that was when she started getting a reverse mullet. It was really for the best ;) I have only had it cut one other time and that wasn't more than an inch... Can you tell? Since it reaches her bottom already?! I consider myself a pretty sharp person, I would never cut someone elses kids hair, but I do understand a good intention, and I can't understand how the hair cut would have over shadowed her joy of her sons progress. That makes me sad...

  6. Oh no!!! I felt SO bad for the mom and for Sara reading this. It's the worst when someone's good intentions go so, so, so wrong. The senior nurse sounds amazing, though--what people skills!

    I can't think of any Chinese-American rules about baby hair ... but I'd be willing to be that when I have kids, there will be no shortage of elderly aunties to chime in if there are things I'm not sure about ;)

  7. I am not even going to try to tell the story of my older son's first barber shop experience... let's just leave it at "there was a crying mommy holding a hair-covered lollipop".

    On a different note, heart-meltingly sweet yet mischievous baby smiles run through generations in your family! Adorable doesn't even begin to cover it.

  8. It's BAD LUCK to cut a baby's hair before they turn one!!

  9. This story brought tears to my eyes, unfortunately they are tears of anger and frustration. I'm always amazed at people and their inability to prioritize. I've been an ICU/PACU and ED nurse for 25 years and sometimes I just can't believe I still do this job. Ever wonder why nurses just quit??? Because of people who don't understand that being extubated after ELEVEN months and having nurses who make YOUR child a priority are far more important than any hair cut.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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