RICHMOND — Being 9 years old and missing 40 percent of your hair is tough enough without having people staring at your bald spots.
But when Sasha Fyfe went to school Thursday morning wearing a yellow bandana to cover the effects of an autoimmune disease known as alopecia areata, instead of people staring, she found dozens of her classmates donning a rainbow of similar bandanas smiling back at her.
For the first time in the nearly two years since her diagnosis, Sasha said she felt like she didn't have to hide how she looked.
The fourth-grader told The Eagle the act of solidarity staff and students at Richmond Consolidated School is "really nice of them. It shows that they support me. That makes me feel much better."
Sasha, the daughter of Lance and Elena Fyfe of Richmond, has struggled much of her life with autoimmune diseases. Before her alopecia areata diagnosis, the girl struggled with a condition that affected her kidneys, but that was resolved through an aggressive round of steroid treatments.
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, more than 6.6 million people currently living in the United States and 147 million worldwide have, had or will develop alopecia areata at some point in their lives. The autoimmune skin disease can occur at anytime, at any age, in males and females, and typically results in the loss of hair on the scalp and elsewhere on the body.
The foundation's website describes the noncontagious disease as "a highly unpredictable and cyclical condition. The affected hair follicles become very small and produce no visible hair above the skin's surface. Hair can grow back in or fall out again at any time, and the disease course is different for each person."
When Sasha first got the diagnosis, she said, "I was kind of confused. I felt like it would be a little hard to hide."
At first, the symptoms weren't so visible. She said she could hide her thinning hair by parting it in a different way, or using a simple headband.
But in more recent months, the condition has gotten worse for her, and more noticeable to others, who tended to look at her quizzically, she said.
"They asked me about it," she said. "I'd have to tell them it's not cancer; that it's just this thing where you lose your hair in places."
Her father, Lance Fyfe, said learning to cope with and manage the disease has been a challenge.
"It's really hard to imagine unless it happens to you or your own child," he said. "Just the fear of being made fun of and people looking at you because they don't know why it's there."
Sasha's rapid hair loss prompted her parents to visit the school and talk with Principal Monica Zanin, school adjustment counselor Dominic Bondini, and school nurse Cristina Lenfest, about their daughter's medical condition.
Together, the family and school officials came up with a plan to help educate others in the school all at once about what's been going on.
"The family provided us with resources, the tools and guidance on how to best do this," Zanin said.
After speaking with Sasha and her parents, the family decided to keep Sasha home on Wednesday while Lenfest, Bondini and teacher Gretchen Winsor educated the fourth-grade class about alopecia areata.
They showed a 9-minute video from the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, on what it means to have alopecia and the importance of acceptance, then had a class discussion. Each child then wrote a note to their classmate, and they created a poster-sized card for her as well.
"We also gave every student in the grade a bandana asking if they would wear it in support of Sasha," Zanin said. "This way she can feel like everyone else."
On Thursday, the entire fourth grade class arrived at the school wearing their bandanas. As the morning progressed, more and more students requested a bandana to support Sasha, so a parent volunteer went out and bought more so the kids could participate. Another even volunteered to purchase a wig for Sasha, should she ever want one.
"I guess even a janitor shaved his head too," Lance told The Eagle.
"It was a very moving and magical day," said Zanin, who noted that the school's motto is "Richmond CARES!"
Sasha continues to face some challenges. Right now, in addition to some steroid treatments and doctor visits in Boston, she's on a homeopathic diet known as an autoimmune paleo diet — no gluten, no sugar, no dairy, no grains — which has proven to be effective in reducing symptoms.
But aside from that, Sasha says she enjoys going to school, taking art classes and studying world cultures.
"I kind of want [people] to treat me like any other kind of kid," the girl said.
Lance Fyfe, an alumnus of the school, said so far, he's been impressed and grateful by the lengths the school has gone to make sure his daughter can enjoy a healthy, welcoming environment.
"It's really hard to step out and ask people to support you," he said. "But for anyone going through something like this, our recommendation is to look for the support. People are really amazing and understanding, you just have to ask for a little help."