She went to a hair stylist but she caused more damage.
"I bought a wig at a store -- but it looked like a wig," Ethel remembered. "My hair is a part of me, and I didn't feel good about myself."
Then someone at her daughter's school recommended Helen Owens, a specialist who helps women suffering from hair loss with extensions and weaves, and custom-made hair replacement monofilament units.
Ethel called and first talked to Jo Owens, Helen's sister, who runs the business side.
"It can be an embarrassing situation but they were kind and gracious," Ethel said.
Helen herself is a victim of alopecia areata, which afflicts many of her customers. Others have challenges like compulsive hair pulling, called trichotillomania, or hair thinning due to medication or hormonal changes.
"I talk to them first about why they are losing their hair," Helen said.
Causes include thyroid problems, a reaction to chemicals, lupus, Seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, stress or hereditary hair loss, as well as undergoing chemotherapy. Helen stresses that each client is different, even if they are suffering from the same condition.
"I ask questions almost like a doctor," Helen said. "Are they taking medications? It's a big responsibility to give an in-depth consultation."
Hereditary hair loss equally affects men and women, she noted, although society deems it normal or even attractive for men. Not so for women.
"Our hair defines who we are," Helen said.
If clients don't know the cause of their hair loss, Helen recommends they see a dermatologist. In severe cases she will consult with their physician before applying anything to their scalp. It's also important to determine possible allergic reactions.
Then Helen uses her technical and artistic skills to create the healthiest, most natural looking head of hair for the woman, applying weaves and extensions to what little hair may remain, or creating a custom-made hair replacement monofilament unit; the design of these units is such that the base of the piece allows the scalp to breathe, and the unit can be worn for three to four months at a time.
Helen aims to give women the hair they've always wanted. It can come in any color, length or texture, she said, turning pages of a sample book with labels such as "Brazilian wave" and "French refined."
"There are 50 different ways of attaching the hair," Helen explained. "And there are so many high-tech things we can do to make it look real, and you can take showers, go in the hot tub, go swimming."
After the hair is in place, Helen cuts and styles it, plus teaches clients to care for it themselves. Helen began to lose her hair at age 11, growing up in San Francisco. She remembers the pain, as does Jo, who has slight hair loss. A neighbor, a loving older women all the children called Granny, who had been in the theater, noticed Helen's problem.
"Granny said if I'd come to her house she'd teach me how to make wigs," Helen recalled. "So I started making wigs with her."
Her artistry emerged as she made hair replacements for herself and went on to cosmetology school to learn about styling, color, perms, scalp and anatomy, and chemicals.
"But not hair replacement," she emphasized.
She ran her hair business out of San Leandro for 15 years before moving it to Livermore a year ago under the name Her Secret -- her hair replacements look so natural they are a secret.
Helen and Jo explained there is a lot of psychology involved, as many women are so vulnerable when they come in.
"I look at clients the same way I look at myself. And we've seen so many horror stories," Jo said.
"Everyday commercial approaches can't solve their type of problems," Helen said. "We've seen the scalp torn up. Even a lot with extensions have had their hair ripped out."
"I have a love for these women who are looking for help," Jo said. "I had a woman tell me she'd rather lose an arm or a leg."
Helen only uses real hair; some synthetics are just as good, she said, but they also are just as expensive, which can mean thousands of dollars. Helen lamented that insurance will not cover hair replacement because it is considered cosmetic but said most women consider it a necessary expense.
"People feel like it's an investment," Helen said. "If you don't have a life because of hair loss, whether it's lupus or trichotillomania, when it takes away your life, most are willing to pay to have their life back."
"I want the highest quality hair," she added. "We go to India a lot, to a temple, and buy virgin (natural) hair, straight from the head. They purify it and take all of the parasites from it -- all hair has parasites. Then we weft it ourselves."
Back home, Helen changes the texture and colors to her fit individual clients. Women come from all over the world for her services, she said, noting one was just here from Australia. She travels every three weeks to New York to provide concierge service for wealthy clients with hair loss. Locally, entertainer Faith Alpher is a customer who has helped to spread the word.
"This job keeps me in touch with my mortality," Helen said. "One woman kept coming until the end because she wanted to look good in her last days. You have to have lot of compassion in this job."
A message left on her phone last week was from a 33-year-old woman who'd worn her hair up for 10 years to cover bald patches. After Helen worked with her for two months to cover the bare areas, she was finally able to wear her hair down, and she was effusive in her thanks.
And how is Ethel Girigorovici doing with her new hair weaves?
"Oh my god, everyone loves it! They say, 'Who does your hair?'" she said. "It's so natural."
This story contains 1030 words.
If you are a paid subscriber, check to make sure you have logged in. Otherwise our system cannot recognize you as having full free access to our site.
If you are a paid print subscriber and haven't yet set up an online account, click here to get your online account activated.