Alex and Austin Ford are like most identical twins. They appreciate an exceptionally close brotherly bond, they have similar physical characteristics, and they share the same DNA, confirmed through genetic testing. This has given these 19-year-old identical twins a unique and possibly life-changing opportunity.
Shortly after turning 12, Alex was diagnosed with brain cancer. While grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments eradicated the cancer, it also left him with noticeable hair loss to his thick brown hair – a trait he once shared with his identical twin, Austin. Over the years, Alex's hair loss served as a constant reminder of the physical and emotional effects of his cancer. Because Alex didn't have enough of his own donor hair for hair restoration surgery, Austin offered to donate his own hair to help Alex realize his dream of one day having more hair. The only question was how to make this happen.
After researching options for hair restoration surgery, the Ford family found Boca Raton, Fla., hair restoration surgeon Glenn Charles, DO, and discussions began about whether Austin's hair could be donated successfully to Alex.
"Hair restoration surgery using donor hair from one identical twin to transplant to the other has only been performed a few times and, to my knowledge, not with a cancer survivor – making this a truly unique situation," explained Dr. Glenn Charles, a volunteer physician of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery's (ISHRS) Operation Restore program. "When I heard their story, it really hit home with me because I have identical twins and knew that I wanted to do everything possible to help this family."
Like most parents of cancer survivors, the Fords walked away from their battle grateful for their son's health but also with a considerable amount of medical debt. That's when, as the twins' father, Chuck Ford, said, "Fate intervened. Despite the cost, we knew we would find a way to make this happen for Alex. I believe that fate led us to Dr. Charles, who in turn, introduced us to the ISHRS Operation Restore program."
Operation Restore is the ISHRS pro bono program that matches prospective hair restoration patients suffering from hair loss due to disease (such as cancer) or trauma with physicians willing to help people who lack the resources to obtain treatment on their own.
"Since its inception in 2004, Operation Restore has provided more than $415,000 worth of free hair restoration surgery and expenses for nearly 50 patients suffering from hair loss due to these circumstances," said David Perez-Meza, MD, chair of the ISHRS Pro Bono Committee, which oversees Operation Restore. "ISHRS volunteer physicians from around the world donate their services to Operation Restore, and over the years we have helped nearly 50 patients of all ages who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to undergo hair restoration surgery without this program."
Continual refinements and technological advances in hair restoration surgery have allowed specially trained physicians to safely and effectively restore new hair growth in thin or bald areas with the patient's own existing scalp hair. Knowing that that the twins' procedure is nearly unprecedented, Dr. Charles chose to use a newly FDA-approved physician-guided robotic device for donor harvesting individual hair follicles through a process called follicular unit extraction, or FUE. Follicular unit transplantation creates natural-looking, permanent results that are virtually undetectable – a sharp contrast to the visible "plugs" of earlier hair restoration treatments.
During the nearly five-hour procedure, Dr. Charles removed between 1,500 to 1,800 hair follicles with the new robotic-assisted procedure from the back of Austin's head and transplanted them to Alex. While it will be nearly a year before the twins know if this novel procedure was successful, the college sophomores will return to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln hopeful that Alex will regain his hair and forever grateful to Dr. Charles and the ISHRS's Operation Restore program for giving the twins this opportunity.
"This procedure means so much to me because I hope that everyone will be able to see Alex for who he is and not for the guy who is balding or the one with the funny hair," said Austin. "I would go to any length to help my brother who deserves this chance, and I'm hoping this will help Alex move forward and live the life he deserves."
Individuals with hair loss due to trauma or disease who cannot afford hair restoration surgery are encouraged to apply to the ISHRS's Operation Restore program. Applications are available through the ISHRS Web site – www.ishrs.org – and are reviewed by the Pro Bono Committee of the ISHRS. Selected patients are matched with an ISHRS physician volunteer and every effort is made to match patients with physicians in their geographic area. In cases where travel is necessary, the program covers these expenses for the patient.
In June 2008, the Hair Foundation – a non-profit foundation devoted to promoting "hair health" by educating the public about options for treatment and maintenance of healthy hair – formed a collaborative effort with ISHRS to help raise funds through appropriate corporate donors to support Operation Restore. To make a direct donation to help the Operation Restore program, please visit Operation Restore.
Founded in 1993, the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery (ISHRS) is a non-profit medical association with a membership of over 1,000 worldwide dedicated to the advancement of the art and science of hair restoration. The mission of the ISHRS is to achieve excellence in patient outcomes by promoting member education, international collegiality, research, ethics, and public awareness. For more information and to locate a physician, visit www.ishrs.org.
Editor's Note: Before photos of Alex and Austin Ford are available at /press-release/operation-restore-patients-alex-and-austin-f