The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bagel shop owner saw young customer lost her hair. He shaved his own head in solidarity.

Sunrise Bagels owner Sam Aggarwal with Megan Ragucci, 10.
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Sam Aggarwal always has free cookies ready for the kids who come to his Sunrise Bagels shop in Wyckoff, N.J. But of all the grateful children with outstretched hands, there was one who sometimes seemed weary when she said thank you.

Ten-year-old Megan Ragucci has visited Aggarwal’s shop several times a month to buy bagels with her mom or dad for the past two years. When she was in first grade, she lost her hair to alopecia universalis — an autoimmune condition that causes total hair loss and has no known cure, said Megan’s mother, Jenn Ragucci.

“Megan handles her baldness like a trooper, but it still hurts sometimes when people stare,” said Ragucci, 46. “People always think she’s sick and they ask if she has cancer. After a while, that wears on a kid.”

Aggarwal, 49, said he had picked up on that sentiment in the store during some of Megan’s visits.

“I could tell that she needed something special,” he said. “I was sitting in my office last month, wondering what I could do to get a smile out of her and boost her spirits, when I suddenly realized what the answer was.”

Aggarwal decided that he would show solidarity by shaving his head.

“It seemed like the perfect thing to do,” said Aggarwal, who has been in the bagel business for 17 years. “I had been blessed with a full head of thick hair.”

When he went home that day, Aggarwal said he told his wife, Seema Aggarwal, about his idea and she was supportive, even though she’d always admired his dark locks.

“I told her that once my head was shaved, I was going to keep it that way because I have a choice,” Aggarwal said. “A lot of people don’t have that choice. I wanted Megan to know that whenever she came to my store, she would see somebody else with a bald head like hers.”

A few days later, Aggarwal spotted Megan’s dad, Mike Ragucci, in the shop and told him about the plan. Ragucci, a police officer, was immediately on board and went home to tell his wife and daughter.

“I was stunned that Sam would do something like that to make my child happy,” said Jenn Ragucci, a former preschool teacher who lost her job during the coronavirus pandemic. “I was also touched that he didn’t want Meg to feel alone.”

Megan’s face lit up, she said, when she told her that Aggarwal wanted to have his head shaved to resemble hers.

“It was like, 'He’s going to do that for me?’ ” Megan’s mom said.

“He’s a really nice man who always gives me chocolate chip cookies,” said Megan. “I thought it was cool that he wanted to be bald like me.”

Jenn Ragucci said it was four years ago that she noticed a bald spot on the back of her daughter’s head during the holidays. At first, she thought it was because Megan usually wore her hair in a ponytail.

“Then when she started waking up with hair all over her pillow, we knew something else was going on,” she said. “Her hair would come off in the shower and if you ran your fingers through it, you would literally pull it out.”

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Megan was diagnosed with alopecia, and within months she had lost every hair on her head, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, Ragucci said, adding that nobody else in the family has the condition.

“Meg went through a bunch of treatments, including [steroid] injections in her head to help stimulate hair growth, but nothing worked,” she said. “She’s perfectly healthy, so when the treatments started to cause pain, it didn’t seem worth it.”

“I don’t miss the shots,” said Megan, a fifth-grader. “I’m bald, not sick, so it really bothers me when people treat me like there is something wrong with me.”

“I accept that I'm bald, and my friends have accepted it,” she said. “They treat me the same as before. I know I’m the same person, but when we're out shopping and little kids stare, it makes me feel like I’m different. I don’t like feeling that way.”

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Jenn Ragucci said she was touched when she learned that the owner of her favorite bagel shop had quietly been paying attention to what her daughter was experiencing.

“After I learned what he wanted to do, I went into the shop to give him a hug and he told me that we need more love in the world,” she said.

On Oct. 15, Ragucci’s hairstylist, Jackie Pomante-Kiener, agreed to do the honors for Aggarwal at the Klip Joint in nearby Hawthorne.

“We met Sam there after school,” said Megan. “I was really excited about watching it happen.”

Quipped Aggarwal: “Sitting in the chair at the salon, I felt like I really had nothing to lose except my hair.”

When Pomante-Kiener began working her way around his head, Aggarwal said he was more focused on Megan than his own hair piling up on the floor.

“I couldn’t stop looking at Megan’s smile,” he said. “I loved it. That smile was priceless. I had never seen her so happy.”

Megan said she especially enjoyed posing for “twins” photos afterward.

“It was a lot of fun. I think Sam looks really good with no hair,” she added.

Megan said one thing that helped her cope with baldness was joining the online support group Baldtourage for women and girls who are affected by hair loss.

“I found out there are lots of people who don’t have any hair,” she said.

Now that Aggarwal is one of them, Jenn Ragucci said she has noticed a difference in her daughter when they visit the bagel shop. Megan always has a big smile for Aggarwal.

“She has a lot of confidence because of what Sam did,” said Megan’s mom. “We can’t thank him enough.”

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