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He’s got it all covered

Hair restoration specialist Dr. Robert Leonard deals with his patients’ thinning follicles — as well as their fragile egos

Dr. Robert Leonard consults with a patient at his office in Newton. Dr. Robert Leonard consults with a patient at his office in Newton. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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CRANSTON, R.I. — The entrance to Dr. Robert Leonard’s Rhode Island office is decorated with articles about its proprietor. Considering Leonard’s lofty stature among hair-transplant surgeons (he’s a past president of the 1,000-member International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery) and meticulously groomed image as hair restorer to the stars, that’s not surprising.

One article does jump out, however, and that’s a 2008 newspaper story about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ GQ-cover quarterback. It was alleged that Brady may have been seeking treatment for male pattern baldness. Leonard was quoted, albeit speculatively. Thinning hair runs in Brady’s family, Leonard noted, and tackling hair loss early is smart strategy. If Brady has an issue, the doctor suggested, he knew some great new techniques that could help him.

Flash forward to last November, when a National Enquirer story placed a car that looked like Brady’s in Dr. Leonard’s office parking lot. Since then, speculation has given way to silence, at least on Leonard’s part. The Pats’ QB has become He Who Must Not Be Named. No surprise there, either, since Brady attracts more off-field scrutiny than practically any athlete on the planet.

“As a person observing from the outside, and a huge Patriots fan, I can’t comment if a person is a patient or not,’’ says Leonard with a smile that gives away nothing. “But I observe everybody’s hair, and thinning happens to lots of guys. So, yes, I did weigh in a couple of years ago [on Brady’s hair] when asked.’’

End of discussion. Hey, how ’bout the Pats securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?

Leaving Brady and his overanalyzed locks alone, let’s focus on Leonard instead. Who is this man his patients affectionately call “Doc,’’ and how did he become the guru of grafted follicles?

An Arlington native, Leonard, 51, graduated from the University of New Hampshire, earned his medical degree from the University of New England in 1986, and lives in Narragansett, R.I., with his wife and three children. He once planned to become an OB/Gyn. But after his wife, a medical student, became pregnant with the couple’s first child, he left his OB/Gyn residency for a more family-friendly specialty, training under Dr. C.P. Chambers, a leading hair-transplant surgeon back in the days when early Joe Biden-style hair plugs were the industry standard. Male and female pattern baldness, a condition affecting some 80 million Americans, was also beginning to draw more serious attention from medical professionals.

“It was a huge risk to leave an established residency program, and I really didn’t know much about hair transplantation,’’ Leonard recalls. “But when I decide to do something, I jump in all the way.’’

New surgical procedures and an aging boomer generation seeking its fountain of youth have changed the game dramatically over the past 25 years. And few practitioners have benefited more than Leonard, who’s performed thousands of transplant surgeries over the years and who lectures on hair restoration techniques around the world.

His business has grown to include seven offices in three states, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Leonard and his team perform surgeries in two locations, Cranston and Newton. The other offices are for consultations, provided free of charge and with a large dose of hand holding and psychological counseling.

“There’s a stigma attached, absolutely,’’ Leonard acknowledges during an interview in Rhode Island, where he opened his first office in 1989. “I’ve always likened coming to my office to visiting a VD clinic, because it’s really embarrassing — for whatever reason.

“For many men, losing their hair is heart-wrenching,’’ he adds. “They’ll talk about not going anywhere without a baseball cap on, or never going swimming. One big concern of mine is bringing this issue out of the closet.’’

Though the consultations may be free and conversations nuanced, Leonard’s brand of hair restoration is hardly inexpensive. His services cost between $4,500 and $8,000 and consist of some combination of topical creams (e.g. Rogaine), pills (Propecia), low-level laser stimulation, and transplant surgery, all rarely covered by medical insurance.

Transplant surgery has been around since the late 1950s, but the results often appeared about as natural as Rudy Giuliani’s comb-over. The defining moment, if not nadir, came in 1991, when Senator Biden chaired the nationally televised Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, looking as if he’d tangled with Edward Scissorhands. Comedians feasted on Biden’s cringe-inducing coif. Leonard’s office fielded a slew of cancellation calls from worried clients.

That seems long ago, though. Surgical transplants that once took multiple sessions to complete are now done in one office visit of 4 to 6 hours, under local anesthesia. Hair grafts are harvested by a couple of methods, the most common involving hair-growing skin being shaved off the back of the head, then dissected into tiny grafts of 1 to 4 follicles apiece. The grafts are surgically implanted in hairless areas. The older plug method, by way of contrast, harvested grafts of 20 to 40 follicles apiece and required several visits to fill in unsightly gaps between plugs.

Within 12 to 18 months, transplanted hair begins fully growing out. Once it does, says Leonard, it can be washed, combed, dyed, and otherwise treated as a patient’s naturally growing hair. Which it is.

“I’m very honest with people,’’ he says. “Not everyone is a candidate for this. If a woman has thinning hair all over, I won’t have enough hair to use. Or if someone’s been wearing a hairpiece for years and wants a ton of hair, I can’t provide that. I turn away a lot of people, which surprises some colleagues of mine.’’

Clients like WEEI-AM sports-talk host Mike Adams have helped spread the word about Leonard, both through paid ads on ’EEI and personal testimonials. Adams, whom Leonard first treated in 2003, considers himself both a patient and friend. To succeed in a medical practice with a high embarrassment factor isn’t easy, says Adams.

“You have to promote yourself a little bit, and Doc does that. But he’s also a local guy, not part of some bigger franchised operation. He’s accountable to his community, beside being very good at what he does.’’

Leonard’s typical patient is a 50-year old male who’s been bothered by thinning hair for years, if not decades. But he’s also treated patients in their teens and 80s, and around 20 percent of his surgical patients are women. Even in tough economic times, he says, reacquiring a full head of hair can seem more like a necessity than a luxury to many.

“If you’re out of work, you might figure your chances for re-employment are better if you look and feel younger,’’ he says. “It’s a self-esteem thing.’’

Leonard may be coy about discussing his clients, but he’ll freely admit to his own hair issues. Yes, he’s been taking Propecia for 13 years to combat hair loss. And no, he has not had transplant surgery. Yet. “It doesn’t bother me enough,’’ he says. “Maybe someday, though.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.