How alopecia has made me stronger and more confident than ever

Knowing she may never get her hair back and tired of covering it up, Northland woman Romy Colbatz has decided to take charge.

By Kylie Hall
For most of her friends, this will be the first time they've laid eyes on Romy Colbatz's beautiful bald head.
As she journeyed into her 50s, Romy was determined to continue enjoying her flowing shoulder-length locks. It was a huge shock then, when in July of last year, while celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary in Melbourne, Romy started losing her hair.
A busy mum and business owner, Romy recalls the moment her body rebelled.
"We were supposed to be having fun on our holiday and then clumps of my hair started falling out in the shower," she tells. "I was really worried."
Romy's flowing shoulder-length locks before her hair started to fall out.
Upon returning to New Zealand, a visit to her doctor revealed no major illnesses, for which Romy was thankful, but that didn't alleviate the distress she felt at losing her lush crown of hair.
"I was very down and it was hard to come to terms with," she says. "As a woman, your hair is a key part of your overall look and my hair was deserting me!"
Doctors believe Romy, 50, is suffering from alopecia universalis, a rare auto-immune condition thought to affect only one in 4000 people. Specialists think the condition causes the body's immune system to mistakenly attack the hair follicles – not just on the scalp, but everywhere on the body.
"I was stunned by how many women suffer from alopecia," she says. "Mine's an extreme version of the condition but the upside is, no more bikini waxes!"
Romy's wig is getting less and less use.
Looking on the bright side can be difficult, but Romy knows how fortunate she is not to be suffering something more serious.
She explains, "Yes, I'm really sad that my hair has disappeared on me, but I know there are so many women out there facing much bigger health challenges than what I'm dealing with."
When a friend learned Romy was losing her hair, she jumped to the conclusion that she had cancer, and kindly offered help and sympathy.
"I quickly set her straight as I feel guilty when people think I have cancer," she tells.
A German native, Romy moved to New Zealand in 2005 with husband Ulf, 54, settling in Kerikeri, where they own and manage a campervan company.
Her DIY legend hubby has built much of their home himself, right down to the kitchen cabinets, and found it difficult not being able to "fix" Romy's problem.
Ulf says, "All I could do was be there for her, hold her and tell her that I love her, with or without her hair."
Romy continues, "At one stage, my hair did actually start growing back. My scalp was nearly fully covered with cute woolly tufts and I began to have eyebrows once more! But then, it all fell out again. That was a rough time."
After a couple of months of living with no hair, Romy purchased her first wig, a chic, cropped honey-blonde number she nicknamed Fifi.
"It was difficult walking into the wig shop as that was the moment I finally accepted that I had no hair," she recalls.
Daughter Susie, 21, who is studying in Auckland, sends her mum sweet messages of support whenever Romy feels down, and son Ben, 12, has been a true ally.
"I've been competing in some ocean swims and that's made me feel really strong and in control of my body."
"He is so sweet," grins Romy. "If Ben decides to bring a buddy home from school, he rings me on the way home to let me know, so I can pop Fifi on."
There is currently no cure for alopecia universalis. In some cases, hair regrowth may occur, even after months or years, but in other cases, it never returns. Current estimations are that only around 10% of people experience a full recovery.
"Romy is coming out of this situation stronger and more confident than ever," Ulf says affectionately.
Romy adds, "I've been competing in some ocean swims and that's made me feel really strong and in control of my body."
Knowing she may never get her hair back and tired of covering up her beautiful dome, the Northland woman has decided to take charge.
"I'll wear a wig when I want to, but I don't want to feel like that's the only way I can be me," she concludes. "If I choose to, I want to be able to walk amongst my community with my bald head and just get on with my day.
"I don't have cancer – I just don't have any hair. I'm sharing my story so that other sufferers can take comfort that they're not alone, and also to free myself."

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