By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Synthetic locks answer the prayers of little princess with rare condition

David K. Yamamoto / Special to The Star Juan Bernal glances toward his 4-year-old daughter, Kalista, during a recent church service at the Apostolic Assembly Fountain of Life Center in Ventura. Kalista has alopecia areata, a condition in which she lost all her hair.

Monday, June 16, 2008
Ventura County Star

Imagine living as a parent in a world where every little girl except your own has a full head of hair.

That was the life for Rikki and Juan Bernal of Oxnard, whose daughter, Kalista, lost all her hair by age 3 as a result of an uncommon disease with no known cause.

"I'm a pretty happy guy, but sometimes when I see her, it breaks me down," said Juan Bernal, 45. "As a man and a father, it really breaks my heart. Although she's happy it really hurts me inside to know that down the road, it's going to be hard for her."

The outlook on Kalista's future became much brighter when her father read a newspaper article about Godiva's Secret Wigs, a shop that specializes in working with first-time wig wearers undergoing medical challenges such as chemotherapy, radiation, or loss of hair because of genetics, stress or other medical reasons.

"I could not even finish reading the article because of the excitement and positive feelings I was getting from what I was reading," Bernal recalled. "Sometimes we as adults have little faith, but that doesn't mean that a miracle can't happen especially to a pretty little girl like Kalista, who prayed for the miracle of hair, and in faith hoped she would get it."

Just days after he made the first call to Godiva's in Thousand Oaks, the owners found a vendor that carried the right wig for Kalista, and it came in the exact shade of medium brown that her parents had hoped for.

"The moment the wig was placed on her head, the feeling of helplessness disappeared, and all we could feel was happiness and joy at seeing our girl with hair," her dad said. "As soon as she put her hair on, I wanted to cry then and there; that's how emotional that situation is for us."

Out of more than 20,000 women, Kalista is the youngest client served by Godiva's Secret Wigs since the store opened its first of three locations in 1997, said Danielle Scott of Canoga Park, who runs the business with her mom, Rochelle Scott of Westlake Village.

"At first, I contemplated ordering an adult-size wig and altering it to fit her head, since we do alter wigs when necessary, but I decided to go the extra step and find something made specifically for a small girl," said Danielle Scott, who works with more than 30 different vendors. "It was a bit of a challenge for me to find a child's wig that looked realistic, but after much research, the one I found was perfect."

The best part of Kalista's high-quality, synthetic wig is that it has a memory curl, "so Kalista's mother can wash her wig at night, shake it to drip dry in the shower and, in the morning, Kalista's wig will dry into the original style without any rollers or blow-dryers."

Blending in

We all expect to see hair on women — especially little girls — and most people have enough to worry about without hair being one of those factors, Scott said.

"This wig allows Kalista to blend in with the people around her," Scott said. "Wigs will allow Kalista to stand out and be recognized for the amazing girl she is and the woman that she will become, instead of standing out because of her lack of hair."

Flash back to July 31, 2003 — the day Kalista Apollonia Bernal was born the youngest of two brothers and two sisters.

"And boy were we surprised when out popped a full head of beautiful hair, a little crazy looking because of the delivery, but we knew it was a full head of dark, healthy hair, on a healthy, pretty baby girl," her dad recalled.

In December of 2005, Kalista's mom noticed a round patch of hair was missing from the side of her baby's head. As weeks turned to months, the spots turned to patches.

"Clumps of hair were falling out and my wife and I were going crazy trying to figure out what was causing it," said her father, who made appointments with doctors and dermatologists to find out what was wrong — all the while dealing with his own sadness and depression every time her hair fell out.

"Family and friends would now ask if she was sick or something, but we had no answers."

In January of 2006, Kalista was diagnosed with alopecia areata, a condition in which hair is lost, from one spot on the scalp to many spots to total hair loss.

The court of public opinion

By her third birthday, Kalista was completely bald.

Often at stores or other public places, adults and children would look at her, "and we could see it in their eyes: What happened to her?'" her father said. "At first, it bothered us somewhat, but Rikki would turn it around by telling Kalista, Mija, they are looking at you; wave at them.' And she would, smiling, not understanding what was happening and why people were looking."

One day, Kalista walked into her parents' bedroom with a scarf draped from side to side, ear to ear.

"She was combing it and saying, Look Ma, look Dad, look at my new hair Jesus gave me,'" her father recalled. "Tears welled in my eyes and I felt a feeling like I've never felt before. I looked at my wife and saw the same feeling I felt.

"With tears running down our faces, we looked at Kalista with her big giant cheeser smile, with two well-defined dimples at each end. She was just standing at the foot of the bed combing the scarf as if it was her hair. We had been telling her to pray to Jesus for hair."

Finding hair for Kalista is nothing short of a miracle, her mom said.

"If it wasn't for Godiva's, I honestly don't know what we would do; it looks like her real hair," said Rikki Bernal, 35. "If she wants to wear it, she'll wear it. Kalista decides. We leave it up to her."

Every time she puts on the wig, Kalista undergoes a transformation from a tomboy to a girlie-girl.

"She's got two different personalities; when she doesn't have it on, she'll be climbing fences and doing boy things with her brothers," her mom said. "When she has her hair on, she's Miss Prissy with her little high heels; she's so ladylike. Everybody gets a kick out of it."

When Kalista first got her hair, "I felt happy!" exclaimed the 4-year-old. "I like to wear it because it's better."

Godiva's Secret Wigs has three locations: in Woodland Hills, in Valencia and, locally, in Thousand Oaks, at 2412 Thousand Oaks Blvd.; 494-WIGS.

To hear this story on Alicia's radio segment, click on the link below:

Help available for those with hair loss

Alopecia areata is a very difficult disease for the patient, as well as the family, said Lisa Butler, vice president of communications for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF).

However, there are many things Rikki and Juan Bernal of Oxnard can do for their 4-year-old daughter, Kalista, who was diagnosed at age 3 with the disease.

Butler first recommends an NAAF support group that meets in Pasadena.

"There is a great deal of healing that takes place in learning that you are not alone in your experience as a patient or a parent," Butler said.

The NAAF also holds an annual conference for those affected by alopecia areata directly or indirectly, as a family member, spouse or friend. The 2008 event takes place Thursday through Sunday in Louisville, Ky.

Attendees feel empowered

The conference offers "workshops, sessions and social events that leave the attendee feeling at home and empowered," Butler said.

She also suggests that parents educate their child's school about the disease.

"NAAF has a school pack which details ways that families and teachers can work together to educate their daughter's peers and their parents about alopecia areata," Butler said, "ranging from a take-home letter written by the parents to a schoolwide assembly about alopecia areata."

The spectrum of alopecia areata varies from one spot on the scalp to many spots to total hair loss, said Kalista's dermatologist, Donald Seidman of Camarillo, who has a private practice in Tarzana and also spends one day a week at the Magnolia Family Medical Clinic in Oxnard, where he met Kalista.

"It's spontaneous and can happen at any age," Seidman said. "It's not rare, but it's uncommon. It has no known cause. We think it's an immune reaction at the hair root that tells the root to stop functioning."

One treatment involves injecting cortisone into the bald area to stimulate the hair to grow. However, in the case of a child like Kalista with total hair loss, such treatment would require a number of needle injections.

"The success of such injections is very high if you think you could inject a 4-year-old without traumatizing her beyond belief," Seidman said. "The cortisone injections are a very mild dosage and not considered unsafe in any way, but it can be a traumatic course so a wig is a common option."

Treatment options vary with the extent of hair loss, Butler said, and, "generally, the disease is cyclical in nature, and the hair goes through a period of loss followed by re-growth."

Many individuals respond to treatment, she said. "However, there is not a treatment that works across-the-board for everybody. "

Goal to curb stigma

A lot of the stigma associated with alopecia areata comes from individuals not knowing what is causing the hair loss, Butler added.

"The goal is to curb this by letting everyone know exactly what is going on," she said. "As she gets older, they can continue to hold awareness events in their community to keep the education going."

For information, call the National Alopecia Areata Foundation at 415-472-3780 or go online to For information about the NAAF support group in Pasadena, call group leader Betsy Wilbur at 818-935-9424.

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