It’s typically not a good thing when a customer at a hair salon starts crying when she sees herself in the mirror, but Jon Richards has gotten used to it.

Richards specializes in attaching hair extensions to clients who’ve undergone chemotherapy and have been told by other salons that their hair isn’t long enough or strong enough to handle the process.

While some cancer survivors make peace with their hair loss, for others getting their hair back is a critical part of the healing process, said Richards, who owns the salon that bears his name in the Thrivent Financial Building in downtown Minneapolis.

Once a survivor is finished with therapy, “they don’t like looking in the mirror and still seeing someone who looks sick,” he said. “They want to see someone who looks healthy. And when they look healthy, they feel healthy.”

Most hair-extension procedures require the client’s hair to be 4 to 6 inches long, growth that can take nine months to a year after chemo. Richards is one of only a handful of stylists in the world who will work with hair as short as 1 inch.

That’s why Melissa Lallak had to wait only two months after her last chemo treatment before getting extensions that Richards could trim and curl until it looked just like the hair she was sporting in a pre-cancer photograph.

“I didn’t want people looking at me wondering if I had gone through chemo,” explained Lallak, who as an administrator in the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office often has to make public presentations. “To me, this is huge.”

Richards has had clients come from as far as Australia and has flown around the country to serve others. “I didn’t develop the process,” which he learned in England, he said, “but I have perfected it.”

It’s incredibly labor-intensive, which is one reason other stylists avoid it. Normally it would take about two hours to add extensions; his process can take up to 10 hours. He’s also concerned about having chemicals close to the scalp, so instead of an adhesive, he attaches the extensions with tree sap.

He charges $1,200, which, he says, “is a fraction of what I could charge.” He’s heard of people charging as much as $7,200, “but I can’t do that to a woman coming out of cancer. I have to sleep at night.”

Lallak couldn’t stop smiling as she watched in the mirror as Richards gradually restored her long locks. “Even at first blush, I feel stronger,” she said. “I can’t wait to get home and have my family greet me.” 

Minnspirations is a regular column about Minnesotans who inspire and move us.