Patients today are demanding more: More access to their health data, more ways to connect with their physicians, more price transparency. They’re also demanding – and delivering – something much more basic: more comfortable and dignified clothing to make their medical conditions feel, well, less like medical conditions.
A slick-looking insulin pump and various efforts to redesign the hospital gown are only just the beginning. Patients, family members and caretakers are seeing the need directly and responding by creating simple solutions that make medical treatment more comfortable and less disruptive to daily life.
Deb Stanzak was a seamstress by trade and became an entrepreneur in 2008 when she launched a company to fulfill her late brother’s requests for more comfortable clothing to wear during his dialysis treatments.
Her brother, Ron, had what Stanzak called “every complication of diabetes in the book” before passing away in 2004. Toward the end of his life, he had renal failure and was on dialysis three days a week. To avoid having to wear a hospital gown, he wore short-sleeve shirts in the middle of winter so that nurses could administer the dialysis, but he complained of being cold and uncomfortable. So Stanzak took a long-sleeve shirt and sewed a zipper onto the arm, making the first prototype of what would become RonWear Port-able Clothing.
Her brother loved the shirt and before he died made her promise to make more for others, a project that got delayed as Stanzak cared for three other sick family members. But in 2008, she returned to the shirt and started on a redesign.
Today’s version of the RonWear shirt has zippers not just on the arms but on the chest, and the accompanying pants have zippers at the groin and an elastic waistband to accommodate for bloating caused by dialysis and chemotherapy. The fabric is fluid-repellent to make blood and fluid drips easy to clean up.
But, perhaps most importantly, it looks like something anyone would wear.
“One of the most important things was the concept of normalcy, because when you look good, you feel good,” said Stanzak, who calls the RonWear jacket and pant suit the “medical garment that thinks it’s a jogging suit.”
RonWear sells directly to consumers through the web, but is also getting some traction with institutions near where Stanzak is based near Cleveland. According to Stanzak, the company has just landed deals with Menorah Park Center for Senior Living and the gift shop at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center to carry the product. UH will also be testing some new products, she said. “The value proposition for hospital is that they don’t have to undress the patient – they just sit them down and they’re ready to go.”
Others are taking fashion beyond the hospital and into the home. Susan Callison beat breast cancer, but as a result of treatments she had lymphedema, or swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages, in her arms. She was prescribed a therapeutic compression sleeve that was uncomfortable to wear and created a bulge of fluid at the top of her arm and an ache in her shoulder.
When she went looking online for an alternative, she found an Italian designer by the name of Enzo Pinelli, whose company, Solidea, made a full-length, over-the-shoulder compression sleeve with a design that intrigued her.
It turned out that the sleeve alleviated her ache and helped move fluid all the way out of her arm, preventing the unsightly bulge from forming. And she was interested in a newer design of the sleeve that included a micromassage fabric to stimulate fluid movement through the superficial capillaries.
In 2010, she started the Lymphedema Sleeve Company, known as LSC Distribution, in West Hartford, Connecticut, to import the sleeve and Solidea’s other therapeutic compression products to the U.S., where she sells them through various websites and local boutiques, and is working to introduce them to therapists and physicians.
“It’s Italian fabric, so it feels like high-end hosiery,” Callison said. “For me, who has to wear it every day, it allows me to continue on with life.”
Other patient-designers are all over the web, from a woman whose colon surgery led her to design ostomy pouch covers, to a woman whose type 1 diabetes and master’s thesis work led to a line of scarves and neckpieces designed to envelop diabetes devices, to a line of fashionable medical bracelets that resulted from an artist’s battle with cancer.
But why all of this innovation now, in the era of medical apps and data and all things technology?
“I think it started with an equal opportunity thing. As disease spreads . . . none of us is exempt; it’s part of society now,” Stanzak said. “There are very few companies that do what I do, but they’re cropping up every day.”
[Photos courtesy Deb Stanzak and Susan Callison]