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I got a cheap hair transplant in Turkey, the recovery was agony, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat
Jun.13.2024

Ten months aftertravelling to Istanbul for a bargain surgery, our writer checked back in on thehighs and lows of regaining the hairline of his youth

The proceduretakes six to eight hours. In that time, it’s possible for bald guys tocompletely replace the hair that Father Time has taken away. Seriously: If allgoes well, the results look extremely convincing, and they (generally) last forlife. This is why celebrities like Lebron James, David Beckham, and ElonMusk are all rumoured to be on Team Hair Transplant. (That’s probablyjust the tip of the iceberg—ever noticed male celebrities just don’t seem to gobald any more?) But the procedure isn’t simple or painless: The recovery takessix to eight months, it's nerve-racking, and the final results can’t be knownfor a year.

It’s also wildlyexpensive—the procedure can cost tens of thousands of dollars in the U.S. Butyou can get them for a bargain in Turkey, which is quickly becoming the hairtransplant capital of the world.  So in March of 2022, as I chronicledunder this pseudonym for GQ, I flew to Turkey and visited a clinic where avaguely mysterious doctor cut 4,250 holes in my head. Because the results werestill unknown, I ended that story on something of a cliffhanger. I’m now inMonth 10. The results are in.

In the earlydays your head is raw and it can still bleed. I got home and tried not to stain my couch. You are forbidden fromwearing t-shirts—pulling them over your head could risk brushing the newfollicles—so I bought the kind of button-down pyjamas that dads wore in 1950ssitcoms. I ruined a few shirts with blood from my scalp. For two weeks I couldbarely sleep; I felt groggy and cranky. My work suffered.

Not exercisingwas annoying (too risky for the new hair), so was not drinking (a restriction Istill don’t totally understand), but I particularly dreaded showers. You arenot allowed to stick your head under the nozzle—the water pressure could damageyour new follicles—so you need to gently, carefully pour a cup of cold waterover your head, then softly rub it with your fingertips. The new hair lookedand felt like grains of rice. When I cleaned them I was terrified I was rubbingtoo hard and would undo the operation.

The finalindignity? Your agony is on complete display, because you are not allowed towear a hat. This sounds trivial, but because of my prior brushes with skincancer (surgeries on my crown to remove basal cell carcinoma), my dermatologistpreviously forbade me to go outside with a bare head. So I completely avoidedsunlight, like history’s unsexiest vampire. That was the first month.

By month two thenew follicles had (supposedly) lockedinto place, meaning less anxiety about bumping my head. Now I could sleep. NowI could take normal showers. Now I could wear a hat, so to hide the operation Iwore a baseball cap at all times—on Zoom calls, when out with friends (only afew knew the truth), and even on a few dates.

Every morning Iinspected my hair in the mirror. And every morning it looked just a little bitworse. I had entered the dreaded “Ugly Duckling” phase, where your newtransplanted hair actually falls out—it’s called shedding and it’s normal—butyour old hair hasn’t yet regrown to its original length, leaving awkward barrenpatches. Once a month I checked in with Hair of Istanbul by WhatsApping themphotos of my hair; they assured me it was on track.

My first haircut came in month three. My barber, ajovial 80-something who fought in the Vietnam war, knew about the surgery, andby now he seemed emotionally invested. He was almost as curious about theoutcome as I was. And when sitting in the barber’s chair I asked him how itlooked.

He inspected itfrom all angles. “It looks like doo-doo.”

Then I had nochoice but to bring my Doo-Doo Hair to a family wedding, where the suit and tieand ceremony meant that I couldn’t hide behind the baseball cap. I saw auntsand uncles I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic; they must have wonderedwhat the hell had happened to my head, but they were too polite to ask, and Iwas too cowardly to share. In one photo of me in the suit, I look sad and oldand bald and defeated. As a buddy said, “You look like a disgraced politician.”

I knewthat theoretically all of this was normal. But I also knewthat some transplants fail and there were no guarantees. I also knew that I hadcheaped-out by going to Turkey—maybe this was what I deserved?

One morning,during my gloomy ritual of inspecting my hair in the mirror, I saw what might be a tiny new strand ofhair. Could it be? I didn’t dare to hope. But the next morning Ispotted another one. They were no bigger than specks of pepper, but thiswas new hair, baby! I nearly wept with relief. Then the nextday there were more. I felt like a farmer who had struggled to survive winter,and now, finally, he could see the crops sprout from the soil.

Within a weekthose tiny strands had multiplied. A week later there was some noticeablecoverage on the scalp. It was happening. I could now be inpublic without a baseball cap. At the very least, my hair looked no worse thanit did before the operation.

Then it keptgrowing. By month five, the entire transplant area had been somewhat filled inwith hair. It was thin and skimpy but it was progress. I visited my barber andhis face lit up.

Then the newhair began to thicken. And by month six—still only halfway to the end game—Irealised that for the first time since I was in my early twenties, incredibly,I had some real options with my hair. Should I let it grow long? Swoop it overto one side?

By month seven,there was no more ambiguity; the hair looked better than it had in decades. Ilooked younger. I felt younger. When I visited my barber he whistled inappreciation, like a proud grandfather. After the cut he said, “I’m sorry, butI have to do something.” Then he rubbed his hands all through my hair, back andforth, a big smile on his face. “It just feels so good.”

On a first date,a woman told me that I didn’t look anywhere close to 46. (This is clearly thewhite lie everyone says, but still.) Then she elaborated: “You’ve still gotyour hair.”

“Lucky, I guess.Good genes.”

Around monthnine, studying my hairline with satisfaction, I noticed something less pleasant: I had gained weight. My facelooked puffy and my cheeks looked fat. I stepped on the scale and, indeed, Ihad gained around 10 pounds since the operation. I can’t blame the transplant,but now the balding anxiety had been replaced by body anxiety.

Both of theseanxieties, of course, are foolish. (Cue the speech from an after-schoolspecial: “It’s what’s inside that counts!”) But I realized that perhaps I had abaseline level of insecurity about my appearance—maybe many of us do—and nomatter what I did to upgrade or optimise, the symptoms might be treated but theroot psychological issues would remain. That’s how it works with money.Research on happiness suggests that when we buy new stuff we’ll feel a jolt ofpleasure, but this will wane and we’ll soon revert back to our baseline. Then we’ll crave morestuff, rinse and repeat.

Of course, asking a hair transplant to tamemy inner-demons is too high a bar; the goal was to fix my hair, not serve astherapy, and by that standard it was a roaring success. The bald crown I had ontop was mostly filled in, the front of the hair looked dense, and I no longerneeded to use pomade to “hide” the empty corners of my widow’s peak—the widow’speak was completely gone. It was just all natural, thick hair.

On a backpackingtrip in South America, I met a group of 20 and 30-somethings who wereastonished to learn that I was 46. I assumed this was mere politeness until heapproached the others in the group, unsolicited, and said with excitement,“You’ll never guess how old Alex is!”

This was new. Inever got that kind of reaction, pre-Istanbul. So I fully credit thetransplant. And after a while it no longer felt like a hair transplant and justfelt like my hair, period, something I no longer had to worryabout. And now, in month 10, I even forgot to check in with Hair of Istanbul –that’s how chill I feel.

Would I do itagain? Absolutely. (That’s not to say you should: Do your research,understand the risks, and know what you’re getting into.) I’ve done many dumbthings in my life. This was not one of them. I’ll go even further: I predictthat hair transplants will become far more mainstream in the near future,especially if the costs continue to fall. The results are just too good toignore.

At a recentparty I saw a friend that knew about Istanbul, but who I hadn’t seen since theUgly Duckling phase. “Hair looks great!” She said in a whisper, not wanting toblow my cover.

I thanked her,told her I was happy with it, that maybe I do indeed look a bit younger.

She took in my new appearance.Gave me a thorough look. Then she nodded and said, “You know, you could getsome Botox.” anil
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