Homeless Man Turned Barber Pays It Forward, Becomes Advocate for Men’s Health

Waverly Willis

After being homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol for 15 years, Waverly Willis decided to turn his life around. He became a barber –using his craft to better the community. His journey of setbacks continued after a screening test revealed he had kidney cancer. Join Waverly and one of his doctors, Dr. Charles Modlin, to hear how he’s using his experiences to inspire other men.

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Homeless Man Turned Barber Pays It Forward, Becomes Advocate for Men’s Health

Podcast Transcript

Kyle: Hey, everybody welcome to The Comeback. I'm your host Kyle Michael Miller. During this episode we're talking with Waverly Willis who has made a remarkable comeback after being homeless, addicted to drugs and going through kidney cancer. Dr. Charles Modlin, a kidney transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, will also join us. But first, here's Waverly in his own words.

Waverly:  My name is Waverly Willis. I'm 48 years old and live in Cleveland, Ohio. I was homeless for 15 years, addicted to drugs and alcohol. I lost a lot in my life but the two things I never gave up were my passion for cutting hair and helping people. When I finally got to a place of stability, I reached for my clippers and decided to open up a barbershop –Urban Kutz. We give free haircuts to the homeless. We also started doing blood pressure checks in the shops to encourage people to take care of their health. I know the value of those screenings because after I went to a health fair at Cleveland Clinic doctors found out I had kidney cancer. I am now cancer-free and so thankful I had that test. It's a testimony about going to the doctor, and I share it with my customers every day.

Kyle: Waverly, Dr. Modlin, thank you so much for being here today.

Waverly and Dr. Modlin: Really appreciate it, thanks.

Kyle: It's good to see you both. Waverly, most of the time we get to chat with people who have made a remarkable health comeback, but you have overcome much more than just kidney cancer. You own two successful barbershops now, but how was your life different 10 to 15 years ago?

Waverly: Well, 15 years ago I was homeless and when I say homeless I don't mean like couch surfing on friends and families couches. I literally slept in the streets on 18th and Superior. I ate out of a dumpster on 30th and Carnegie, behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, you know. So it was a very, very rough time in my life.

Kyle: You were addicted to drugs for 15 years. On November, 1, 2004, that was the turning point for you.

Waverly: That's my sobriety date 11-1-04. That's when I got into Y-Haven, a treatment facility, a homeless shelter for men. And that's when I began my treatment and my sobriety. So that's when the cloudiness started to disappear in my mind you know.

Kyle: And you made a promise that day.

Waverly: Yeah. That day when they gave me where I was going to be staying at I took a really hot bath, and I made a promise to God that if he was to, I get emotional sorry, if he was to release me from those demons that I will spend the rest of my days you know doing my best to help his people out. And you know I'm still holding true to that. He's still holding on to me and I'm still holding on a God.

Kyle: That’s awesome. And even when you were going through recovery you were going through barber school too. How did you get interested in cutting hair?

Waverly: Well, I always cut my hair. My mom, Wardell Willis, God rest her soul, she was, she was my barber, my brothers and I. She used to cut our hair every other week and she used to do a terrible job of cutting our hair.

Laughter

Waverly: So when we’d go to school the kids would all laugh, point fingers, make jokes at my haircuts. And I remember like it was yesterday, my mom sat me down for my biweekly haircut and I remember grabbing her wrist and I was just saying, “Mom, can I just cut my own hair?” And my mom said, “I don't care who cuts your hair as long as it gets cut.” And unfortunately, I got the same results when I got to school. Kids were still laughing and made fun of my haircuts. But like with anything if you practice it you get better and better at it. So the same kids that were laughing and joking about my haircuts started to pull me to the side and asked me if I can cut their hair. And my mom's basement would be filled with kids from school as well as the neighborhood kids. And she would count all the people in our basement. I was charging three dollars a haircut at the time. And my mother was charging me a dollar per person, for her electricity. So I guess that's how I got the entrepreneurial spirit planted inside me.

Kyle: So in 2008 you opened Urban Kutz.

Waverly: Right.

Kyle: You have two barber shops in Cleveland.

Waverly: Right.

Kyle: But you noticed a trend that guys will come into your shop and talk about anything and everything except their health.

Waverly: Right.

Kyle: And you wanted to change that dialogue, so what did you do?

Waverly: We would have this typical barbershop banter. We’d talk about the Browns, Cavs and the Indians, but I was noticing every now and then some of my clients would not show up. And I would run into a wife, or a daughter, son, a family member, and say, “Hey, what happened to Joe?” And they would say, well, he passed away because he had a heart attack, he had a stroke, he had kidney failure, diabetes, things of that nature. And I'm like wow I never knew he was going through that. And often they would say, well he wouldn't take his high blood pressure medicine, or he wouldn't quit smoking like the doctor instructed, and he wouldn't, he wouldn't eat right. Things of that nature. And I took that personal because I know that I had this guy in my chair at the very least once a month. Most times twice a month, once a week. And I know the influence that I had over my customers. So I started just asking you know have you been taking your blood pressure medicine? And I just I bought a blood pressure machine, and I started taking blood pressures myself. And then I started reaching out to Cleveland Clinic, and they were thrilled to send health care professionals in the shop. And so we just started educating people on what’s a good blood pressure versus a bad blood pressure. So it just kind of morphed into cholesterol, and LDLs, blood sugar levels and things of that nature. And so we still had the same barbershop banter, but you'll be so surprised on a Saturday morning in a barbershop filled with men, and we're talking about the Browns, but we're also talking about vegan recipes today. Today is Monday and I'm holding true.  It’s meatless Monday for me and a bunch of my friends. And I guess a support group has started and we got the same type of things going on inside of other barbershops in Cleveland.  

Kyle: Dr. Modlin we need more people like Waverly don't we?

Dr. Modlin: He's a huge inspiration, and he's one of the reasons that just keeps me going as a physician. It’s just inspiring. He's actually a health care provider, he's not just a barber. He's a health care provider in the truest sense as you know is there is. He’s out there, he's actually saving lives.

Kyle: It's interesting because we have this new survey out here at Cleveland Clinic, it's part of our MENtion It campaign, that found 72 percent of men would rather do household chores than go to the doctor. And another pretty interesting fact is that 65 percent of men wait as long as possible to see their doctor if they have any health symptoms or injury. Dr. Modlin, why do men have such a hard time going to the doctor?

Dr. Modlin: A lot of guys are afraid that if they go to the doctor the doctor is actually going to tell them they have an abnormality, something wrong with them. A lot of it's because the way in which we're raised when we're young boys. We're raised to be stoic, to be macho. You know if we fall down, skin our knee, you know don't cry just you know bear with it, don't complain. And that kind of stays with us into adulthood. But in reality a lot of guys are afraid of if they go to the doctor, the doctor is going to find something seriously wrong with them. A lot of guys think that you have to have signs or symptoms or pain or discomfort in order to have something wrong with you. And that's not the case. You know for example, you know men can have prostate cancer not to have any symptoms whatsoever. You can have high blood pressure, hypertension, it's called the silent killer, because you don't have to have any signs or symptoms whatsoever to have significant high blood pressure. And untreated high blood pressure can lead to strokes, heart disease, kidney disease, peripheral vascular disease, erectile dysfunction, you know, which is really you know afflicts a lot of men.

Kyle: I am going to throw myself under the bus. Even just a few weeks ago there was a spot that popped up on my head. My wife says, “Hey, go to the dermatologist, go to Cleveland Clinic, that's where you work, right?” Get it checked out. And I was like oh I'll get it checked out eventually. Well, I got it checked out and it turns out that it's skin cancer. And so you know, and it's the most common kind, they're going to take it out. But if, it was that stigma that like oh it's going to be fine, even though I work in health care, sometimes it's you know, you need that person to kick you in the behind and say go there and do that. Dr. Modlin, you started the Minority Men's Health Fair where anyone can come to get free health screenings. I know this fair has really opened the door for more minority men to start taking their health seriously. You've seen more than 15,000 people come through since it started. Why do you think it's been so successful?

Dr. Modlin: The health fair is open to all men regardless of race or ethnicity. We target
men of color especially because men of color -- African-American men, Hispanic/Latino men -- have higher rates of what we call health care disparities. Which means they are a group of individuals who are afflicted disproportionately with prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease. And there are a variety of reasons for that. You know minority men, historically, a lot of times have lacked the ability to access quality health care. Many have been impoverished, have not had adequate health insurance, or any health insurance whatsoever. And so the health fair is an avenue whereby men can actually come in and get free preventative health screenings, free health exams, they can receive health education. We want the men to tell each other you know inform each other about the event and that's what's happening in Waverly barbershops. We can't do it by ourselves. You know we need surrogates like Waverly to get the word out.

Kyle: And Waverly the Minority Men's Health Fair holds a really important place in your heart.

Waverly: Right.

Kyle: Because back in 2015 you attended the Minority Men's Health Fair. And what happened?

Waverly: I was going through our typical screening process, and I gave them a urine sample. And they came out and told me that I had microscopic traces of blood in my urine. And they said it’s probably nothing but we suggest a follow up visit. That was a Thursday. That following Monday I came back to Cleveland Clinic, did some more tests, and I got a call later on that same day and they said, you have a mass in your right kidney, a large mass, in your right kidney. And we're going to have to remove it. And I thought I was being punked. You know I thought it was some type of practical joke. And you know they were serious. And I'm like well, remove what the mass or the kidney? And he said we're probably going to have to remove both, you know the whole kidney. And so I was stunned and so you know, Dr. Modlin, I know we've done these type of things before, but I never, I never got a chance to thank you. And I just want to thank you for doing that for me because without that test I wouldn't be here. You know and you know a urine screen is not, when you go to the doctor for a checkup, that's not like a typical test that you get. So for them to do in-depth screens at these health fairs it's just important that we get ourselves checked up because they're not doing just regular blood pressures and things of that nature. They're going deeper. Two weeks after that, you know I was getting my kidney removed. So I'm sitting here in front of you guys today with one kidney and I'm healthy. You know from that experience and from me seeing some of my clients passing away for not taking care of themselves it’s still a battle. You know I still have a battle with food, but my blood pressure is, is on point. Since then I've lost 150 pounds. My blood sugar is on point. My cholesterol everything is good for me now. So again, I just never had a chance to thank Dr. Modlin for providing this for me. And I'm just a regular guy that he didn't have to fight to instill and keep the Minority Men’s Health Fair going. So I'm just grateful for you doctor.

Dr. Modlin: And we're grateful for you being here and helping spread the word and everything you do. There are countless individuals out there that you may not even realize you're saving their lives. You, you really are and the lives of their family members. By you doing what you're doing on a daily basis. So thank you.

Kyle: Dr. Modlin, why is prevention so important why should men take that step to get tested?

Dr. Modlin: You know it's important because as physicians and health care providers, nurses, you know there are things that we can do about a lot of these diseases you know that Waverly is talking about -- kidney disease, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease. If we can diagnose and detect these conditions in early stages, in early stages we can actually treat and cure a lot of these conditions. You take the case of kidney disease for example. African-Americans develop kidney disease about four times more readily than, than white Americans -- Caucasian Americans. And there is a disproportionate need for African-Americans to receive a kidney transplant. Yet there are not enough organs available for transplantation. There's about a 125,000 individuals on the national transplant waiting list yet we only do about 25,000 kidney transplants a year. So that's an example where prevention is key. There's not enough kidneys to go around to transplant everybody. So our key message in terms of avoiding onset of kidney failure and kidney disease is early detection of kidney disease, you know preventing diabetes and hypertension. And if you already have hypertension or diabetes controlling those conditions so that you will not go on to have end stage kidney disease. You know same thing goes for heart disease. You know diabetes and hypertension lead to heart disease and stroke. So it's something that we really need to get our arms around as far as health care providers addressing these health care disparities.

Waverly: I just want to piggy back on something Dr. Modlin said, as far as men not getting to the doctor like they should. Their number one defense when I bring it up is, I feel fine. And I want to say, and this is very important. So if anybody can get anything out of this. I had no symptoms whatsoever. Literally, I felt fine. I felt normal, and it wasn’t a small mass. It was a large mass. So it had probably been there for quite some time. So just because you feel fine does not, is not a reason, for you not to go to the doctor.

Kyle: Waverly, what are some of the conversations that you're having with men who come into your barbershop? What are the health issues that they're talking about today?

Waverly: Some of the health issues are hypertension. Some of the health issues are just eating right. They say, well, I don't have diabetes. I'm pre diabetic. And I say, well, you understand that just means you're going to have diabetes one day. You know unless you get your weight down, unless you get your blood pressure down, unless you have a relationship or ongoing relationship, with your physician. But along that it's been another thing that we've been talking about is depression, anxiety things of that nature. As men we wear this my macho mask, you know, so we don't talk about these things. So again, I just want to change the barbershop dialogue. I want you to walk away with something better than just a haircut.

Kyle: Waverly you've made such a remarkable comeback in many areas of your life. In 10 years, where do you hope to be? What do you hope to be doing?

Waverly: In ten years, I'm definitely still going to be bothering men to go to the doctor on a regular basis.

Laughter

Kyle: That's good news.

Waverly: In ten years, I want to continue educating and getting the word out. And I want to decrease the numbers of high blood pressure, decrease the numbers of people being prediabetic, reduce our weight. I know that God didn't allow me to survive being a drug addict, and an alcoholic walking the streets, picking cigarette butts up off the ground, and holding a cup in my hand, and having me survive having kidney cancer for no reason.

Kyle: Dr. Modlin, that must be, give you so much thrill and hope to see patients like Waverly who have come through the other side.

Dr. Modlin: Oh, it's remarkable. My dad passed away in 2010. But he was really a catalyst, a motivator for me to give back, you know, to the community. I would always take him to, you know, all of the health fairs and we would stand there at 5:00 waiting, you know, for the doors to open. And I would see these droves of men, hundreds of men, coming in, you know, registration desk. I literally would have tears running down my, you know, I don't like to, you know, mention that I have tears running down my, my face but I literally would have tears running down my face seeing these men take advantage of this opportunity and not only seeing the men come in but also seeing the hundreds of Cleveland Clinic volunteers stepping up. Sometimes I don't want people to see me get emotional but I do.

Waverly: Yeah. I can't help it myself because it's a beautiful thing you know. Especially knowing that through all the stuff that I've been through God is still keeping me. And again, I know it's good to know why you're here and I know for a fact that this is why I'm here. Not like, he just gave me a great compliment, he just said I'm not just a barber you know. I'm a health care provider, and I wear that hat and I want to continue to wear it well, and make Dr. Modlin, Cleveland Clinic and my family proud of me.

Dr. Modlin:  So, I don't know Waverly if you remember, but surgeons actually used to double up as barbers.

Waverly: Yea, the technical term is barber-surgeon. When it first came about, that is true. That is true. I’ll take it.  

Kyle: Do you guys have any closing thoughts before we wrap up today?

Dr. Modlin: You are a health care provider. You're helping get the word out and helping save lives by doing the show so I really thank you and thank Waverly for continuing to do the work that you do.

Waverly: And the last thought is just because you feel fine is not a reason to not go to the doctor. That's not acceptable.

Kyle: Amen right?

Dr. Modlin: Amen.

Kyle: Waverly, thank you so much for sharing your story and being so open and transparent with, with all the different chapters you have. Waverly, Dr. Modlin, thank you so much for being with us today. And thank you everybody for listening. You can find additional podcast episodes on our website http://my.clevelandclinic.org/podcasts, on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher and Google Play.

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The Comeback Podcasts

A medical journey can be a transformational point in someone’s life. Tune in as Cleveland Clinic patients, together with their physicians, share experiences of perseverance and determination. In their own words, hear how these health heroes have made the ultimate comeback.

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