There she stood, with her 6-year-old daughter by her side, with no hat, no wig, exposed. Bald.
She peered into an audience unaware of what she’s been through. But now, for the most part, she’s conquered those demons; learned to cope with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles.
A disorder that spent years not only eating away at her hair, but poking and prodding holes into the veneer of self-confidence she spent decades polishing.
In just a few short years, that disease, that damn disease, stripped her of her self-esteem — day after day, strand-by-strand.
Yet here she is on stage. She appears confident. But the insecurities lurk underneath.
She smiles when her volleyball team cheers from the audience.
She glances at her daughter again.
She’s emboldened. The insecurities drift away.
It’s early October, and she’s one of several women speaking at an empowerment conference for teenage girls.
The few hundred people in the Stranahan Theater gaze after she removes her wig. Their curiosity piqued.
They have so many questions. For starters, who is she?
She’s McKenna Reitz. A wife. A daughter. The mother of two little girls. She’s a teacher and girls’ volleyball coach at Springfield High School.
She’s a woman who was diagnosed with alopecia in her early 30s. And a woman, who by age 33, had no hair.
She’s a woman who thought she was but is no longer defined by her hair, or lack thereof.
That was the first time since losing her hair she was in public without cover.
“It almost felt liberating,” she said.
She only spoke for about six minutes. Her speech focused on perseverance, looking at the positivity in people, and understanding that everyone is fighting her own battles.
The message was uplifting. But that moment — despite her desire to inspire the teenage girls in attendance — was about her, and her journey alone.
‘We can get through this’
The alopecia first appeared in the form of a quarter-size patch in her head. That was five years ago when she was 31. She would go to the doctor, get an injection, and the hair would grow back.
Then came November, 2015, one of the more traumatizing events in her life. As she tried to wash her hair in the shower that evening, she was pulling her hair out by the handful.
She was distraught. Broken. She drove to her parent’s house five minutes away. Her parents greeted her at the door. She burst into tears.
They cried together. They wept as a family.
“It is very difficult when you can’t do anything about it,” her mother, Serena Troyan, said. “What do you say except, ‘We can get through this.’”
Back home, her husband, Greg Reitz, tried to alleviate the impact of his wife’s hair loss.
“It’s only hair,” he said, hoping to bring her comfort.
But for a woman who, for her entire life, had a complicated relationship with her hair, losing that part of her was like being stripped of her identity — especially in a world where hair and beauty are often tethered to the concept of femininity.
In junior high school, she was teased for her “big, frizzy” hair. The juvenile teasing at times bordered on bullying when children would chuck paper wads in her hair.
“It was horrible,” she said.
After years of withering mockery, she had her hair chemically straightened in the ninth grade.
But it wasn’t until her 20s that she began to fall in love with her hair. It was long and flowing and chestnut brown.
“Once I lost my hair I felt like my identity was gone,” she said.
No, she doesn’t have cancer. She’s heard that before. And she’s acutely aware that people are dealing with more severe health conditions.
“People come up to me all the time, thinking I have cancer and say, ‘Keep fighting the good fight,’ and I feel awful because I would rather that prayer and strength go to someone who’s actually fighting the good fight.”
The pain lingered. She didn’t want to go out in public. She avoided mirrors. At first, she wore scarves to cover her head. Then she began wearing ball caps and wigs.
But then something changed.
Neither she nor her family can pinpoint the specific moment that helped her climb out of her rut.
Perhaps she was tired of hiding. Perhaps it was the young girl at the water park with alopecia wearing a hat. Perhaps it was her supportive family. Or perhaps it was Maddox and Karsen, her 3 and 6-year-old daughters.
Whatever it was, she found a purpose. She reclaimed her identity. It was no longer built on anything physical but self-affirmation and selflessness.
She decided to harness her pain and experience to serve as a source of strength for others.
“I started being 100 percent open and honest with my story hoping to empower others and it, in turn, it empowered me,” she said.
She now works diligently to bring awareness to alopecia.
She spearheaded alopecia fund-raising events at a Toledo Mud Hens and Cleveland Indians game. She also took part in triathlons and sold “Alopecia Strong” bracelets.
She’s on a mission.
“The biggest thing is a lot of kids have [alopecia], and I want them to be as strong as possible and bring awareness for them,” she said.
She’s now an inspiration to her students, players, and family.
“I’ve learned from watching her that no matter what happens in life, no matter what obstacles come to me, I know that I can push through and I’ll be a better person,” said Rebecca Brown, a senior volleyball player at Springfield High School.
Now Ms. Reitz views the world through a different lens, from a different viewpoint. She reinterprets her past experience from the vantage point of a new woman.
“You just start to look at the world in a bigger lens than your own little lens,” she said. “You start to look at the beauty in people and not allow hair or physical appearance determine how we perceive people.”
Would she do anything to have her hair back? Yes. But she knows her loss was a blessing in disguise.
“I can’t allow something physical to affect who I am on the inside,” she said.
“I realized I could allow alopecia to define me or I could define it.”
And she chose the latter.
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