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Service & Impact
summer 2022

The ‘Pretty Hands’ Helper

Personal Loss Spurred Dr. William Yates’ Desire to Care for Others
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

After more than a decade in the trenches as a trauma surgeon—“gang violence, shootings and stabbings”—William Yates’ medical career took an unexpected turn. Late one night he saw a hair restoration commercial on television that made him consider the thinning he’d first become aware of on his own head back in high school.

“On a whim” he booked a hair transplant that notably boosted his self-image. Did things change because others saw him differently or just because he felt better about himself? Who knows, he accepts, but after the transplant “it just seemed everything was easier. In society, socially; everything was easier.”

As a result, he traded the hospital emergency room for a hair restoration practice, one of only a few Black practitioners in the country. While about 5% of doctors in the United States are Black, Yates estimates that only around 0.5% of hair doctors are Black: the field is “ruled by elderly white men.”

However, successful Black hair restoration requires a special level of skill. It’s all to do with the way African Americans’ hair follicles are curlier than whites’, continuing under the skin like a corkscrew. “It’s very easy to injure when you remove those follicles,” Yates explains.

He likens it to taking plants from the backyard (the back of the head) and moving them elsewhere. “So, when you remove the hair, you have to make sure you don’t injure it. And this is the problem, that it takes a lot of years [of training] to be able to get African American hair out correctly without injuring it, to transplant it to the front. And if you don’t appreciate those nuances, there’ll be problems.”

Do better
In addition to offering state-of-the-art treatment, including robotic surgery, the Yates Hair Science Group practice in Chicago also carries a range of shampoos and conditioners specially created for Black hair. “African Americans in general don’t make the oil that Caucasians do, so we really should not be washing our hair every day,” he notes.

There’s not a lot most people can do to prevent hair loss, Yates says. In maybe 5% of cases, there’s a condition that might be treatable. But mostly, “the minute you’re conceived, the genetic process has already dictated a blueprint for when you’ll lose your hair. How fast, how slow is pretty much out of your hands.”

There are medications that can block the balding hormone, he acknowledges, but side effects include a decreased interest in sex, which puts off many. He’s dismissive of wonder treatments. “If all those things on TV worked, I wouldn’t have a job,” he says. “I don’t know any of those things that are worth a nickel. It’s just a waste of time.” By the time you realize your hair is thinning, you’ve typically lost 30-50% of it and the clock is ticking: “It’s not like you have infinity, so I would get off the internet and go see somebody who knows what they’re talking about.”

Yates’ medical career may have taken its turns, but he knew he wanted to be a doctor from high school, when his schoolteacher mom—a General Hospital fan who told her son, “You have such pretty hands, you should be a surgeon”—died of cancer.

“I had two choices,” he recalls, “either to do like a lot of people would, rebel and be bad and be mad at the world, or not let her life go in vain because she would have wanted me to do better. So, I took the second route and said I wanted to be a doctor for that reason, that other kids wouldn’t lose a parent like I did.”

Sick and tired
Yates turned his mother’s dream into reality through studies at Northwestern University (B.A. and M.D.) and an internship and then a residency at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He’s thankful for the many people who helped him on the way, two most notably.

First there was family practitioner Dr. Walter McFarland. “He was like the Jeffersons,” he says, remembering being impressed when he visited the doctor’s home in Chicago’s Pill Hill area. “He said, ‘You know, you should be a doctor.’ And then he kind of mentored me in that way. He had a major influence on me.”

Then there was Glenn Gardner, a good friend a couple of years ahead in school who is now an anesthesiologist in Chicago. He went to Northwestern and told Yates, “You can do this. Just study hard, you can do it.” “So, I basically followed his path all the way to med school… he’s kinda been my personal mentor that I’ve always looked up to.”

Despite the switch to caring for hair in 2005 (he worked for the famous Bosley Group for a while, before going out on his own), Yates hasn’t entirely left his trauma surgeon days behind him.

His experiences carved a deep concern in him about gun violence, prompting him to found Yates Protect. The company provides metal detectors for schools and hospitals. “I was sick and tired of nobody doing anything about gun violence and it’s preventable, or at least there should be some deterrent,” he says.
“People just shouldn’t be able to walk into a place without thinking twice about it and just open fire.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic, Yates Protect has expanded to include other public safety products, including thermal scanners and masks. Part of the reason Yates has taken on these different projects is that “as you get older and wiser, you become less afraid of failure,” he says.

“You become less afraid of what the person next to you is going to say about you. You see other people doing things and you think, ‘I could have done that.’ It took me until I was at least 40 to understand that your thoughts are just as valuable as anybody else’s.”

From an interview with Louis Carr