SUNNYBROOK DONOR Michael Suba found his calling through what he remembers as a "terrifying experience" – being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma at 25. Instead of sending him into a depression, Michael says, having cancer and undergoing treatments at Sunnybrook in 1990 gave his life a new direction.
"In hindsight, when I look back on it, it's the best thing that ever happened to me, being 25 and living like I was in a beer commercial. It has a way of focusing you. Two years later I was married and running off and building something," says the upbeat Toronto native.
That something was taking on a full-time role at his parents' medical wig salon, Continental Hair, where he is now president. Michael, who has been cancer-free for two decades, grew up immersed in an unusual world: being around wigs, extensions and hairpieces in his parents' Yorkville salon, established in 1964. But he gave little thought to the family business, or its positive impact on many people (women, in particular), until he was going through chemotherapy treatments at Sunnybrook. During those treatments, Michael heard snippets of conversations from women who had lost their hair and were clients at his father's salon. Many of them recognized him from the salon as well, where he was then working part time.
He remembers hearing how much the wigs improved the women's self-confidence and helped them maintain a sense of normalcy, because they were able to keep their chemotherapy private. "It just showed me how much of a difference it made."
It was then that Michael, who had a degree in politics from Brock University, decided he needed to take on a larger role in the family business. Being a patient spurred the opening of another Continental Hair salon location. One Sunnybrook staffer overheard that Michael worked in wigs and noted that someone had donated a box of them. He cleaned and washed the wigs for the cancer centre and began sending more used, donated wigs from Continental Hair to Sunnybrook.
Once he completed treatment, he put in a bid to open a second Continental Hair in the hospital. That location has now been at Sunnybrook for 15 years, and Michael says he was honoured to have been able to open a business at the facility that provided him with superior care. "They were so professional and caring that it was calming," he recalls.
Two decades in the medical wig industry along with his personal experience with cancer have given Michael perspective on the emotional upheaval that hair loss can cause (although, ironically, he didn't lose any hair himself during chemotherapy). He is enthusiastic about his line of work, despite the fact that many clients are going through a traumatic time. "They feel really comfortable coming here because they know that all the women around them are going through some sort of hair loss. They are not in a regular salon – everybody is in the same boat and we are very sensitive to that."
At times, there is a festive atmosphere. Women bring husbands, wives, sisters and friends and try on different colours and styles.
"They see that they're not going to look foolish; they're going to look good. All of a sudden their shoulders get more square and they breathe easier." Michael Suba, owner of Continental Hair Salon
He is now looking forward to a new Continental Hair salon location at Sunnybrook: it's moving from the Odette Cancer Centre to the new breast cancer centre, opening this year. Michael has a special connection to the new cancer facility, since Continental Hair has donated $75,000. "They've done so much for my family," explains Michael.
Besides his own cancer treatments at Sunnybrook, his mother, Emma, has had a doctor at Sunnybrook for years and his father, Peter, had quadruple bypass surgery at the hospital and later passed away there, following an aneurysm. "It was very emotional and the medical teams really were very exceptional in helping us through that."
After his father died, Michael called the hospital and asked how he could help, and they suggested donating to the new breast cancer facility. Michael, whose passion and enthusiasm for Sunnybrook is infectious, says he can't wait until it opens. "It's kind of neat to pass by, seeing it being built and look up and say, 'You know what? I helped out with that.'"
It's obvious from the way Michael talks about his experiences with Sunnybrook over the years that he is a "superfan."
"If we could all go through life and not know the work that they do, that would be great. But when you need them, it's wonderful to know that they are there for you."