By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
When Geno Marcovici went into the hair-plug business last year, he didn't give much thought to demographics. "I could have really narrowed it down," he recalls. "But then I realized it was simple. Who wants a hair transplant? A man. We see millionaires from Aspen and dishwashers from Mexico. Here's what it comes down to: Guys want hair."
But not just any hair. "Mine looks like Barbie-doll hair or rows of corn or picket fences," says James Artus of the hair coming out of his plugs. He communicates through a TTY phone operator because he is hearing-impaired. "The hair is hard and feels terrible. I complain, and the doctor tells me he sees nothing wrong with it. I go and have surgery twelve times and the balding gets worse. Can you believe that?"
Marcovici can. Over half of his business at Advanced Restoration Technologies is repairing botched hair plugs, he says. And at least half of those shoddy jobs, he adds, were the work of one man: a certain Dr. Robert Paunovich, who left Colorado nearly two years ago in order to take the extremely unusual step of repeating his medical residency training in Florida. After having practiced medicine, his way, for 23 years.
"We're seeing a steady stream of his clients," Marcovici says, "even though Dr. Paunovich hasn't been here in quite a while. It's unusual that a week goes by without us seeing someone who had his services and was not happy with them. Not that he's the only bad one. We see all kinds. Some is bad, some is real bad."
Artus's hair plugs are real bad. And all he wanted, he says, was hair.
"When I first saw the balding starting to happen, I tried to accept it, but it does not make me happy," he recalls. "I'd rather have full hair." Now 45 years old, Artus began losing his hair ten years ago. By 1991 he had worn a hairpiece for five years, but he hated it. His search for a more permanent solution led him to Ralph Carlocci, owner of Hair Unlimited, who set him up with Dr. Paunovich.
"I should have shopped around more," Artus says now, "but Ralph told me that Dr. Paunovich was one of the most experienced and one of the most fantastic doctors in the world, which is why I am so angry now."
Paunovich told him that four separate transplants would restore him to a complete head of hair, Artus says. During those procedures, Artus's own hair, taken from the lower back of his neck, would be implanted on the top and front of his head. "But I had the four surgeries and four scalp reductions," he says, "and it never looked anything but awful, and the grafts didn't grow, anyway." After paying $5,000 for Paunovich's work, he still owed another $5,000--and the doctor was telling him that he needed several additional operations. Meanwhile, Artus says, his scarred scalp sported rows of plugs that didn't fool anybody.
A visit to an attorney proved fruitless. "It seems to be a difficult thing to say whether Dr. Paunovich had gone against the standard of care, even if his was on the very low end of the curve," Artus says. "With hair plugs, what is the standard of care?"
"You gotta trust somebody," agrees Dale Peters, another recovering Paunovich client. "I did, and my hair looks like shit. I'm 31 now, and my baldness started getting bad when I was about 21. When I was probably 26, I went to this company, Hair Unlimited, and found out I could either do plugs or a stupid-looking wig."
Peters could not see himself in a stupid-looking wig--not at his construction job, not at the gym where he works out daily. And it seemed a good sign that Paunovich, too, was a weightlifter. "Not only that," Peters remembers, still impressed, "he had autographed pictures of Hulk Hogan on his wall! I guess he was, like, the main World Wrestling Foundation doctor or something."
Paunovich sat Peters down and gave it to him straight. "I understood that it was $2,000 a session and that I would need tons of work, about thirty sessions," Peters recalls. "Then he gave me a Valium and drilled my hair out of the back of my head and stuck it in the front. It looked awful, lumpy and bumpy, and I was covered with a big bandage like Sadam Salaam or somebody. He told me when the scabs fell off I would love it. Well, it was the worst thing I'd ever seen in my life. The plugs were way too far apart, and they never did take, either. I decided I couldn't go back."
Except to try to get his money. When that effort failed, he threatened both Paunovich and Carlocci. "I got pissed--I'm not gonna say I didn't," Peters says. "I told them if I ever saw them in the street, I'd pound them." Or something. Peters is still paying off the installment loan on his ugly plugs. "Hell, I owe $750," he says. "I'm still paying!"
Who isn't? After spending $5,000 on Paunovich plugs, Artus has spent $11,000 on Marcovici's hair-transplant specialist, Dr. Don Didocha of Detroit. That's a big chunk of change for a freelance housepainter, but Artus doesn't regret it. "The plugs are growing beautifully, the monthly payments are low, and I am very happy," he says.