Cutting hair, checking pressure

Barbers, beauticians receive training in lifesaving medical test


February 04, 2007|By Stephanie Beasley | Stephanie Beasley,Sun Reporter

You can identify Alicia Wilkinson's station by the red and white carnations.

The lone female barber at the House of Masters barbershop at 6001 Liberty Road, she has delicate flowers there that stand out among the bare stations of her male counterparts and seem slightly at odds in an environment where customers periodically stop at the shop's bench to lift a few weights before sitting to get their hair cut. Yet, Wilkinson seems totally at ease. She is confident in her mission -- to improve her clients' appearance both outside and within.

"I love doing everything when it comes to making people beautiful," says Wilkinson.

After 30 years of working as a beautician and barber, the 50-year-old Wilkinson knows how to do everything in the trade, from dye jobs and touch-ups to fades.

Just recently, she spiced up her repertoire with some medical training. After she finished a community college medical course that was of interest to her, one of the barbershop's clients, Dr. Elijah Saunders, a cardiologist specializing in hypertension at the University of Maryland Medical Center, suggested that she take part in a new program -- Hair, Heart and Health.

Directed by Saunders, the program is sponsored by the Community Health Awareness and Monitoring Program and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Hair, Heart and Health trains barbers and beauticians to take blood-pressure measurements. In eight hours of class work and practice, participants learn how to take blood pressure, provide counseling and make medical referrals based on a customer's results. Wilkinson was part of the first training class, which graduated last April.

Saunders said he chose Wilkinson and other staff members at the House of Masters because he thought they would be more likely to join the program because they already knew him. They could then become catalysts for getting other barbers involved.

The program is based specifically at shops with a large black clientele. CareFirst says blacks are more likely to have heart-disease risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

"We thought the idea of addressing this problem in barbershops and beauty shops was quite unique," says Dr. Richard Safier, director of preventive medicine for CareFirst. "Here's an alternative to how we deliver this message to the community."

And Wilkinson believes the message couldn't be timelier.

"You see them one day and they're here, and the next day they've dropped dead," she says of those she has known who have died from strokes.

Stroke, which is caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain, is considered a "silent killer" because people may not feel that anything is wrong before they have one. Risks are aggravated when people make infrequent visits to the doctor. A physician may be able to get those risks under control before they become life-threatening.

Wilkinson suggests that a lack of health insurance may be keeping many people from a doctor's office. When she talks to clients in that situation, she refers them to doctors who charge patients on a sliding scale. She also believes that others are not visiting a doctor out of fear of finding out that they are indeed ill.

Emma Kaham-Gardner, 58, remembers how badly she felt one day recently when she brought her grandson to House of Masters to get his hair cut. "I sat down and I guess I was just tired, and then Alicia said, `Let me take your blood pressure,'" said Kaham-Gardner. "She was telling me that a better way to look good was to feel good and gave me a lot of suggestions for exercise and diet."

As customers enter the door of the shop, they must pass a rack of health pamphlets above the vending machines. The pamphlets tell them how to reduce salt intake and create exercise regimens, and suggest other ways to make lifestyle changes.

Wilkinson, whose parents were both diabetic and who has had diabetes herself for the past 32 years, says that understanding how illness affects the body is key to dealing with your health.

"You've got to be educated on your own health; it's a matter of picking up reading," she says.

In addition to placing the pamphlets at House of Masters, CHAMP and CareFirst also send a nurse to take blood pressure there every Saturday, because Wilkinson and the other barbers are often overloaded with customers.

Relaxing in her faded blue barber chair during a rare break between customers, Wilkinson says, "Doing the blood pressure is rewarding. You never know whose life you are going to save."

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