RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Bessie Henderson was having a very bad hair day. Days after pancreas surgery at Duke University Hospital, she'd been sweating at night, and she hadn't bathed.
Her bedhead was standing tall. Henderson, of Warren County, was feeling low.
That's when Jacques Shy Sr. — aka Mr. Jacques — swept in with a white coat, a rolling duffel and a massive inflatable sink.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that with a bustle of efficiency, he wrapped her shoulders, filled and hung his portable shower bag on the IV stand and set to work with a tingly shampoo. Soon the 55-year-old Henderson's weary face was creased with a smile; she was moaning — not in pain but in delight.
Shy, who is cheerful but never chirpy, massaged her scalp, blew-dry her hair and used a flat iron to create a head of curls. In 15 minutes, Henderson was transformed.
"I look like a whole new person," she said. "I feel like a whole new person."
Doctors and nurses at Duke see this phenomenon time and again when the soft-spoken Shy, 57, arrives on the floor.
He started coming to Duke six years ago, purely by chance. A longtime hairdresser then on disability, he'd agreed to fix the hair of an ailing friend. But he immediately saw the need. Other patients and family members asked whether he was available.
Soon he was visiting all nine floors, five days a week. He had no official authorization, but on every ward he demonstrated what scientific studies show: Laughter really is the best medicine; optimists heal faster; and happiness spreads more quickly than sadness.
Before long, Shy became an institution.
He now works at Duke three days a week, with the authorization of hospital officials. Doctors and nurses ask him to bathe the area around patients' brain surgery incisions, to style the hair of people in comas, to delicately massage the scalps of people suffering the ravages of chemotherapy.
"He brings something more than just a beautician," said Van Blalock, a clinical pharmacist who works in cardiology. For one thing, he carries malpractice insurance.
Waving Shy's business card, Henderson called to Shy on his way out, "I want other people to see this."
Shy wants the word to get out, too. Having quietly established his service at Duke, Shy has labored for months on a "protocol" to get medical cosmetology recognized by the state.
"This isn't a win-win situation," Shy said. "It's a win-win-win. It helps the doctors and nurses, it enriches my soul, and it gives patients hope."
Katherine Titus-Wells, 34, a nurse who developed the Guillain-Barre syndrome in October, knows how easily hope can evaporate. Eighty days earlier, when she came to Duke, the vibrant young woman was a quadriplegic because of this disease of the immune and nervous systems.
"I couldn't move," said Titus-Wells, who can now speak in short bursts through a tracheotomy. "He made me feel better."
Shy came to wash and style her hair six or seven times, sometimes pulling it back in braids.
"He was so encouraging to her," said Mary Lou Titus, Katherine's mother. "Every week he'd tell her, 'Hey, look at the progress you've made.' "
Shy's jacket is studded with gold stars given to hospital employees who go beyond the call of duty caring for patients. He often pins extras on nurses who labor without recognition.
"I'm always the good guy," Shy said with a shrug, his New York accent shining through.
Until Shy showed up, Titus-Wells had the hair treatment most bed-bound patients receive: waterless foam in a cap and a pillow-full of damp hair for the rest of the day.
Nurses are nurses, after all. Not cosmetologists.
Shy provides the full treatment.
Fred Parry from Union County found that out while propped in a chair on Duke's third floor.
He'd had his esophagus removed less than a week earlier, and he was ornery and snappish.
Shy was undeterred. Quietly, competently, he stepped behind Parry, trimming his hair, his eyebrows, even the hairs on his ears. Before shaving him, Shy checked with the nurse to see if Parry was on any blood thinners.
As Shy snipped, Parry dozed. But he woke, with a smile, as Shy pulled the towel away from his chest.
"Look at you!" his wife, Linda, declared.
Sheryl Gaillardet, a traveling nurse now on staff at Duke, said that in all the hospitals she has worked for, she has never seen anything like Shy.
"For 10 or 15 minutes, he takes patients out of the sick factor," Gaillardet said. "This is a little pampering."
But it is not fluff, noted Da Wai Olsen, a nurse and scientist who works primarily in the neurological ICU. Many of Olsen's patients have head injuries — some are unconscious or awakening from surgery or coma. Many are in the hospital for extended periods.
"They often have blood and icky stuff in their hair," Olsen said. "Jacques gets rid of all that. We trust him."
Shy is alert to issues of contagion, meticulously sterilizing his equipment after every customer. He knows what's at stake. On one of his early visits to Duke, a patient warned that even a drop of water could stop her external heart pump and kill her instantly. The treatment is more mental than physical, though.
"For patients who are conscious, it's true that when you look better, you feel better," Olsen said. "When the patient looks more like the person they used to be, the family feels more hopeful, too."
Shy learned firsthand how depressing infirmity can be.
He got into hairdressing shortly after high school in Manhattan. Recruited to "beauty school" because of his immaculate appearance, he resisted at first, but soon found he had a knack for the work. He and his wife, Sarah, also a cosmetologist, ran a salon together for years.
But in 1989, he decided to take a job with state benefits.
In the end, it was a mistake to leave the salon. In 1991, he severely injured his back and neck while helping to restrain a teenager at a youth correctional facility.
At 40, Shy suddenly found himself at home, raising his two sons, caring for an adult brother with Down syndrome, collecting a disability check and managing his pain. The family moved to North Carolina to be closer to Sarah Shy's relatives. She supported the family with a new career in banking.
Shy was lost.
One day — right about the time he volunteered to do his friend's hair at Duke — he was talking to his oldest son about the boy's future. His son told Shy, "Daddy, I wanna be just like you."
Shy beamed — until his son said, "I want to sit at home and collect a check."
"That's when I knew I had to do something, for myself and my sons, to get back my self-respect," Shy said. He believes it was God who led him to Duke.
Even when he worked five days a week at the medical center, it was not lucrative. Shy charges $25 for a haircut and shampoo, $15 for a shave, $30 for shampoo, blow-dry and set.
But much of the time he doesn't have the heart to ask for money.
"Some family members sleep in a chair in the room because they can't afford the hotel across the street," he said. "And you wouldn't believe how many patients have no one to visit them at all."
Carolyn Graham, a patient resource manager, said sometimes nurses pass the hat to cover his materials.
"He does so much for the patients," she said.
Shy thinks he is the one who receives the blessing. For him, this is not so much a business as a ministry.
He now hopes to proselytize about the benefits of medical cosmetology. Last June, he made a pitch to the state Board of Cosmetology to establish a special certification in the field. He has also written an instructional manual on how a cosmetologist might establish a hospital practice, and what to expect.
"This is like Lay's potato chips," he said. "Once you start, you just can't stop."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.