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

Waverly Willis credits Cleveland Clinic health screening and surgeon with saving his life

Barbers, like bartenders, hear it all from their customers.

Well, almost all.

Cleveland barber Waverly Willis, the owner/operator of two Urban Kutz barbershops, noticed a trend: As much as the men in his chair would tell them about their personal lives, they rarely talked about their health.

Waverly Willis barber kidney cancer

Waverly, fellow barbers, and customers getting ready for a haircut at Urban Kutz Barbershop in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy: Waverly Willis)

“Oh, they’ll cheer on the Cavs and bellyache about the Browns. And they like to talk about women,” Waverly said. “But I decided we needed to change the dialogue a bit, and have some serious conversations, too. It can make a difference.”

Waverly regularly started offering his patrons free blood pressure screenings and healthcare advice from volunteer nurses — right in his barbershops. Others do the same, as part of their affiliation with the non-profit Urban Barber Association Waverly founded.

Waverly Willis barber kidney cancer

Volunteer nurses provide blood pressure screenings for customers. (Photo courtesy: Waverly Willis)

“On more than one occasion, a guy’s blood pressure would be so high we would urge him to skip the haircut and go straight to the emergency room,” he said. “Later, they would come back and thank me because they were able to prevent a stroke or heart attack.”

A big part of why Waverly has organized this community service is to pay it forward and remind himself of where he came from. Previously addicted to drugs and alcohol, he was homeless and slept on the corner of 18th and Superior in downtown Cleveland. Now sober for 13 years, he runs two successful barbershops and is working on opening a salon. As he has helped others with their health, he also has focused on his own and lost more than 180 pounds in recent years.

Waverly Willis barber kidney cancer

Waverly before and after he lost 180 pounds. (Photo courtesy: Waverly Willis)

He says his community outreach “keeps me humble and focused on my recovery.”

Research supports the value of barbershops getting involved in community health outreach. A new study by the Smidt Heart Institute found African-American men successfully lowered their high blood pressure to healthy levels when aided by a pharmacist and their local barber.

Filling a gap for minority men

According to Charles Modlin, M.D., a Cleveland Clinic kidney transplant surgeon and urologist, far too many minority men have serious health issues because they are less likely than other men to visit a doctor for regular check-ups.

“Minority men lag when it comes to healthcare for a variety of reasons, some genetic but most related to socio-economic factors,” said Dr. Modlin, who is founder and director of the Minority Men’s Health Center in Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological & Kidney Institute. “We must take more pragmatic steps to educate and encourage them to seek medical support on a regular basis.”

RELATED: Cleveland Clinic Survey: Fathers Want to Break the Silence and Talk About Health With Their Sons 

That’s why Dr. Modlin established Cleveland Clinic’s Minority Men’s Health Fair. Since its inception in 2002, more than 15,000 men have attended the health fair and have undergone a total of more than 42,000 free screenings – for prostate cancer, blood pressure, cholesterol, kidney function, diabetes, heart disease, Hepatitis C, HIV and more.

Waverly credits Dr. Modlin with saving his life. (Photo courtesy: Waverly Willis)

Prevention and early intervention save lives

Waverly is a longtime advocate of the Minority Men’s Health Fair. Lives have been saved as a result of prevention and early intervention that have occurred thanks to screenings at the annual event — including, in 2015, Waverly’s life.

Although he had a primary care physician at another health system, Waverly decided to get a few tests done while attending Cleveland Clinic’s health fair in 2015. One revealed microscopic traces of blood in his urine. Further tests a few days later confirmed a shocking diagnosis – kidney cancer.

Within two weeks, Waverly had surgery at Cleveland Clinic to remove the tumor and his kidney — an intervention he credits with saving his life. Since then, he has improved his health habits; and thanks to his impressive weight loss, he no longer requires blood pressure medication.

“I’m very thankful I had that test,” Waverly said. “That’s a testimony about going to the doctor that I share with my customers every day.”

If you’re interested, register for Cleveland Clinic’s 16th Annual Minority Men’s Health Fair at any of its three locations. 

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