How One Patient’s Textured Hair Nearly Kept Her From a Needed EEG

by | Apr 27, 2023 | Health

(Oona Tempest / KFF Health News Illustration)

Sadé Lewis of Queens, New York, has suffered migraines since she was a kid, and as she started college, they got worse. A recent change in her insurance left the 27-year-old looking for a new neurologist. That’s when she found West 14 Street MedicalArts in New York.

MedicalArts recommended that she get an electroencephalogram (EEG) and an MRI to make sure her brain was functioning properly.

An EEG is a test to measure the electrical activity of the brain. It can find changes in brain activity that can help in diagnosing conditions including epilepsy, sleep disorders, and brain tumors. During the procedure, electrodes consisting of small metal discs with attached wires are pasted onto the scalp using adhesive, or attached to an electrode cap that you wear on your head.

A little over a week before her EEG, Lewis was given instructions that she didn’t remember getting before a previous EEG appointment.

To Lewis’ surprise, patients were told to remove all hair extensions, braids, cornrows, wigs, etc. Also, she was to wash her hair with a mild shampoo the night before the appointment and not use any conditioners, hair creams, sprays, oils, or styling gels.

“The first thing I literally did was text it to my best friend, and I was, like, this is kind of anti-Black,” Lewis said. “I just feel like it creates a bunch of confusion, and it alienates patients who obviously need these procedures done.”

The restrictions could discourage people with thick, curly, and textured hair from going forward with their care. People with more permanent styles like locs — a hairstyle in which hair strands are coiled, braided, twisted, or palm-rolled to create a rope-like appearance — might be barred from getting the test done.

Kinky or curly hair textures are typically more delicate and susceptible to damage. As a result, people with curlier hair textures often wear protective hairstyles, such as weaves, braids, and twists, which help maintain hair length and health by keeping the ends of the hair tucked away and minimizing manipulation.

After receiving the instructions, Lewis scoured the internet and social media channels to see if she could find more information on best practices. But she noticed that for people with thick and textured hair, there were few tips on best hairstyles for an EEG.

Lewis has thick, curly hair and believed that explicitly following the instructions on the preparation worksheet would make it harder, not easier, for the technician to reach her scalp. Lewis decided that her mini-twists — a protective style in which the hair is parted into small sections and twisted — would be the best way for her to show up to the appointment with clean and product-free hair that still allowed for easy access to her scalp.

Lewis felt comfortable with her plan and did not think about it again until she received a reminder email the day before her EEG and MRI appointment that restated the restrictive instructions and added a warning: Failure to comply would result in the appointment being rescheduled and a $50 same-day cancellation fee.

To avoid the penalty, Lewis emailed the facility with her concerns and attached photos.

“I got kind of worried, and I sent them pictures of my hair thinking that it would go well, and they would be, like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine. We see what you see,’” said Lewis.

Soon after, she received a call from the facility and was told she would not be able to get the procedure done with her hair in the twists. After the call, Lewis posted a TikTok video detailing the conversation. She expressed her frustration and felt that the person on the phone was “close-minded.”

“As a Black woman, that is so exclusionary for coarse and thick hair. To literally have no product in your hair and show up with it loose, you’re not even reaching my scalp with that,” Lewis said in her video.

The comments section on Lewis’ TikTok video is full of people sharing in her frustration and confusion or recounting similar experiences with EEG scheduling.

West 14 Street MedicalArts declined to comment for this article.

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