After an hour or so with Connie Bossen, Brandy Cates was feeling different – she was feeling like herself again.
Cates, 24, is a patient at the Duke Cancer Center, and Bossen is a volunteer at the center’s Belk Boutique. The two women had spent the time in a dressing room, fitting Cates out with a selection of headwear to compensate, a bit, for the hair she had lost to chemotherapy.
“You’ve made my day,” Cates said.
The feeling was mutual, Bossen said.
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“It just fills your heart when you help somebody,” she said. “They leave, and it’s like they’re a different person.”
Every Tuesday afternoon, Bossen is at the boutique, helping patients feel better about themselves in spite of very trying circumstances like Cates’ – nine months of chemotherapy followed by radiation and/or surgery followed by more chemotherapy.
Cheerful and patient, Bossen watched as Cates – sitting in a wheelchair with an automated dispenser for pain medication – tried on a series of wigs, scarves and caps the boutique stocks for patients who have lost their hair.
“Some people say that’s the hardest thing, when they lose their hair,” Bossen said. “All the treatments and everything, losing hair was the worst.”
“Connie is so sweet, and very good with the patients,” said Grace Lukas, the boutique coordinator.
Bossen, a retired interior decorator, has been volunteering with the cancer center for six years and is on the advisory board for its Cancer Patient Support Program. Last year, she and her husband, Elliott, received the center’s Light of Hope award for service and support to the center.
“The passion behind being sure that a patient feels good and comfortable – that’s all about what Connie wants,” said Doreen Matters, spokeswoman for the support program, which includes the boutique where each patient can pick out a wig and other items free of charge.
(The boutique does carry hearwear for men as well as women, but Bossen said there isn’t much demand.)
Cancer is a personal thing for Bossen – her father and several other relatives have died from the disease, and she and her twin sister, Carolyn Warren, even have their own line of head covers for cancer patients (nando.com/niq).
“I just felt really frustrated because ... we just didn’t have anything pretty to give to patients,” Bossen said. “My sister was a fashion major in college. ... I love fabric and detailing and everything.”
So they came up with a line of rayon scarves, with terry cloth bands inside for comfort, in a variety of colors and patterns, exclusive to the Cancer Center shop. They call it the Niquelle Collection. (The name a play on their maiden name, Nickell.)
“They’re soft, comfortable, easy to care for, easy to tie and, most importantly, help instill confidence,” she said.
“Some people don’t want to wear a wig, for whatever reason, so we have something they can wear and feel pretty and they don’t feel like they’re standing out so much,” she said.
“It makes a difference.”
Cates, though, opted for a wig – a red one – and studied herself in the mirror.
“You’re going to fool a lot of people. People will ask, ‘Where do you get your hair done?’ “ Bossen said.
“You’ll never guess – Duke Hospital,” said Cates.
Cates said she was tired. She left the boutique, wearing her wig and carrying a Carolina blue knit cap, with her mother, Lynda Pittman, pushing the wheelchair.
“When she came in she would hardly talk and she had the saddest face,” Bossen said. “When she tried on the wig she was a new person.”
Time with patients like Cates is “medicine for the soul,” she said.
“This place really kind of keeps me grounded,” Bossen said. “You think you’re going through something hard ... and you stop and think about what some of these people are going through – you’re not having a bad day at all.”