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Haircuts & heart health — Niagara Falls barber shops checking blood pressure

You get your hair cut on a regular basis, so why not get your health checked just as often? A barber shop in Niagara Falls is part of an innovative approach to instilling that healthy trend in the community.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Master Barber Howard Ivey gives Pastor Raymond Allen a trim at his barber shop in Niagara Falls.

With the flip of a switch, the buzz of electric clippers begins.

“Want me to leave a little bit on the top?” asked Howard Ivey.

“No, no,” chuckles Raymond Allen. “I think that left years ago.”

Allen has just taken a seat in the chair at a small wood-paneled barber shop in Niagara Falls. He’s a regular at Howard’s Hair Salon for Men, where owner and master barber Howard Ivey has been wielding his clippers for a long time.

“I love what I do, that’s why I’ve been doing it for so long,” Ivey reminisced. “You know, 45 years into this and I’m trying to get more years out of it as I can. I like this. I like serving the community.”

The services at Ivey’s shop have recently expanded beyond haircuts and beard trims. There’s a corner where customers can take a seat and check their blood pressure with a small wrist-cuff monitor and fill out a card to take with them and keep track of their results.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Ivey has a chair specifically set aside for customers to sit down in and check their blood pressure. Next to it is his wrist cuff monitor, instructions for use, and cards to track results on.

“They could take their own blood pressure there or I could take it for them while they’re in the chair,” explained Ivey. “Right now most of the younger people are kind of curious, because they don’t know what their blood pressure is.”

Ivey’s is one of six barber and beauty shops in Niagara Falls to host the new blood pressure cuffs. It is part of an initiative called “B & B Health Stops” that’s trying to educate members of the community on cardiovascular health. Community Health Worker Coordinator Ebony Patterson White of Millennium Collaborative Care took the lead in organizing the stops.

“The concept is, primarily, we have blood pressure screenings happen in pharmacies. But if the person doesn’t go to a doctor, they’re never going to probably going to be at that pharmacy. It’s going to be in between,” said Patterson White. “So what are some regular, frequent places and locations that we can kind of partner in the community to have this available for use?”

That’s where Allen comes in. Aside from being a regular customer at Ivey’s shop, he’s a local Pastor and President of the Niagara Ministerial Council. His connections in the community were instrumental in getting the Health Stops off the ground. He’s also got the inside perspective of a man just getting a trim.

“In my 30 years of, particularly, coming to this barber – no subject is off limits,” said Allen. “So why not talk about a subject that is sensitive to most men, which is health.”

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Allen and Ivey wait as the wrist cuff runs through the process of checking blood pressure.

When Allen sat down in the chair, Ivey slipped the monitor cuff on his wrist and turned it on. The small machine starts with a slight hum as the cuff inflates. After a brief pause, it lets out three beeps and the results are in.

“Let’s see what we have here, Pastor.” Ivey said as he looked at the readings.

“Oh you’re doing better today then…120, 122 over 78. This man is healthier than me,” he proclaimed. “That’s a good reading, a very good reading.”

For some men, the relationship with their barber is intimate.

“You know, people just tell us things that they won’t tell a lot of other people. Personal things about their health. You know, I’ve had guys tell me things that…I’m not even going to repeat it,” said Ivey.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Ivey and Allen have been getting up close and personal for more than 30 years - both as barber and customer, and as confidantes on many matters including health. Ivey says babers are like psychologists to the men who sit in their chairs.

Years before the B & B Health Stops initiative, Ivey began noticing how many of his older customers were taking blood pressure medication like he was.

“When they would come in sometimes I’d say, ‘How’s your blood pressure?’” Ivey recalled. When they replied they didn't know because they hadn't checked, he would do it for them.

“That’s how the whole thing started happening,” he said. “And I was taking it with my own personal monitor, so I didn’t really think that much of it because the few customers I was concentrating on – I knew they had a problem with their blood pressure medication. So I concentrated on them more so than the rest, but then it started picking up.”

Most of Ivey’s clientele is African-American, which puts them at significant risk for blood pressure issues. In the U.S., their rates are among the highest in the world. And for young African-Americans, high blood pressure can develop earlier in life and be more severe.

The Health Stops program has been active only since the start of July, and Ivey is confident its popularity will continue to take off. Patterson White said the results are already showing.

“There is a conversation now about hypertension, about blood pressure,” she pointed out. “We’ve had some cases where some of the barbers have reported that they’ve tested some individuals and had to actually direct them to medical care or direct them and assist them to getting to a primary care physician.”

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Ivey's shop is filled with the well-used tools of a master barber as well as plaques showing his involvement in the community.

Ivey has done both. He sent a customer to the hospital after noticing some of the more serious warning signs of hypertension. It turned out the man hadn’t taken his blood pressure medication in two years. Ivey also advised him to visit the Community Health Center of Niagara. It’s another partner in the program, and a place where Ivey’s customers can get medical services and insurance, no matter what their ability is to pay. Community Health Center Project Manager Felicia Johnson explains all a customer has to do is put their name on a small piece of paper at any one of the Health Stops.

“There’s a small referral form that’s just basically their name and address,” Johnson said as she displayed the slip of paper. “They put it in a secure container that our outreach workers come to every beauty and barber shop every other week and pick up the referrals. And we contact them and set them up with an appointment. It’s very easy, it’s very discreet.”

The whole program is part of a broader trend of bringing healthcare to the community through grassroots organizations, and getting to prospective patients in places they already are. And for the average customer at Ivey’s shop who comes in about every two weeks, he’s hoping the blood pressure checks will become part of their regular routine, too.

“I’m going to press them on that, as a matter of fact, because I think that it’s very important,” said Ivey. “They should know, and they should keep updates on it.”


Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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