Giving the Gift of Confidence to Children in Need

December 23, 2021

Novant Health executive Denise Mihal decided to honor the life and legacy of her sister with a very special donation — her hair.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life in many ways, closing businesses around the globe and making it difficult to keep appointments for things like getting a haircut. While many saw this as an inconvenience, one Novant Health executive saw it as an opportunity to help those in need, while honoring the life and legacy of her sister.

Denise Mihal, Novant Health’s executive vice president and chief nursing and clinical operations officer, was due for a haircut when salons in North Carolina were ordered closed in March 2020. When they reopened, it remained difficult to find an appointment, which meant Mihal’s platinum locks continued to grow.

By the time she could finally get a haircut, Mihal realized her tresses were long enough to do some good. She knew the need for donations of hair from firsthand experience. Through her work, she has seen the struggles brave children go through while fighting cancer — a tragedy that has affected her own family, as well.

In 2007, Mihal’s older sister, Elaine Thomson, died of a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma, which attacks the smooth muscles of some body organs, including the intestines, stomach and blood vessels.

"She suffered with cancer for five years, and she lost her hair twice," Mihal recalled in an article featured on Novant Health’s Healthy Headlines website

She said whenever her sister donned a donated wig, her worries eased, and she looked like her old self.

"I knew she was much happier because people weren’t asking what was wrong with her or saying that she looked sick," Mihal recalled.

Thomson was a special ed teacher who also held a law degree and did pro bono legal work on behalf of domestic violence victims. She also visited the infirm at home, delivered meals to a local food bank and cleaned up community parks in her free time. Mihal felt that making a charitable donation was an excellent way to honor her philanthropic sister.

"She set a great example for me and her sons," Mihal said. "So my making a donation of any kind in her memory is, it seems, fitting and appropriate."

Mihal wanted to provide sick children with the same confidence and relief Thomson got from wearing wigs, so she decided to donate her hair to Michigan-based nonprofit Children with Hair Loss. She chose this charity because they do not charge families for the service and will provide wigs several times until the age of 21. The children who could benefit from her donation may suffer from cancer, like her sister, or from various other issues that cause hair loss, such as alopecia, trichotillomania and damage caused by burns.

When Mihal went online to sign up for the donation, she was hit with a prompt that informed her that children prefer longer hair and asked if she could donate more. She knew she had to, so she waited a few weeks to let her hair grow even longer and ultimately donated much more than she originally intended.

After over a year of waiting, Mihal finally had a hair appointment this past fall with her stylist, Erica Edwards, who cut four foot-long ponytails from her head that will give comfort to children in need.

At her stylist’s urging, Mihal is already thinking about doing it all again.

"If there’s anything we can do to help humankind, we should do it," she said. "Whether it’s our time, our hair, our blood … These are small things we can do, and you may not realize the impact it has on the recipient."

You can make an impact, as well — no haircut required.

With a contribution through Novant Health Foundations, you can ensure patients across our community have access to remarkable care that saves lives. Do your part, and give today.

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