In this “Learning from InvENtors” post, we’ll be looking at a recent innovation by breast cancer survivor, Lisa Crites.
Sometimes it is the desire to do the most basic thing, in this case, taking a shower, that can spark innovation.
Frustration after her bilateral mastectomy led Crites to create the Shower Shirt, a water-resistant, anti-microbial garment that allows women to shower while preventing water from contacting surgical incisions and the post-surgical drains and tubes that are temporarily sutured into patients’ bodies.
“I had just had my breasts amputated and I was told I couldn’t take a shower,” Crites said. “Women have been going through mastectomies in this country for 70 years. I don’t understand why this product didn’t exist.”
Many healthcare providers minimize the ordeal that taking a shower becomes for mastectomy patients, noted Dr. Emran Imami of TEPAS Breast Center in Melbourne. But not the 100,000+ women who undergo mastectomies each year.
Until Crites’ invention, women who endured mastectomies used large trash bags in order to bathe and wash their hair. Not only do these impromptu solutions put women at risk for infection, they also erode a woman’s self-esteem during a time when she is most vulnerable. This garment also addresses the needs of the 60,000+ patients who undergo breast reconstruction, augmentation or reduction in U.S. hospitals each year.
Crites served as her own guinea pig for the entire design, for although post-surgical drains are removed after about two to three weeks for most mastectomy patients, Crites faced complications and hospitalizations that required her to use the shirt for about a year.
“I was at dinner one evening and began drawing a bolero-style jacket on my napkin. I included all of the bells and whistles needed on the inside of the garment to both protect the post-surgical drains from becoming wet, while also hosting the weight of the drains,” she explained. “I knew women varied in all shapes and sizes so I was going to need to create an elastic perimeter. It was also a given that the most important feature of the product was the neck region; if the neck wasn’t covered appropriately and completely “over-engineered,” as my significant other infers, the product could fail.”
“Since this was not the first time I had started a project in which I didn’t know what I was doing, I totally relied on blind faith. Of course blind faith, and my calming head-voice who I could still hear saying, ‘Create a water-resistant product for surgery patients, create a water-resistant product for surgery patients.'”
Crites sent her sketch to her brother, Charles.
“He called me and said, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” I requested he transform my drawing into some type of a shower jacket. He’s somewhat of an architect; though he says he’s an engineer. But since he draws and designs buildings, I felt highly confident he could draw and design a garment for showering.”
Charles brought the design to life:
The Shower Shirt is made of waterproof parachute material on the outside, with microfiber on the inside of the neck, a water-resistant zipper, flap and Velcro all the way down in front. The openings for the neck and arms are elastic. Inside there are three pockets, where a woman might insert drains and also a strap to secure tubing on each side.
“It’s loose around the armpits,” Crites explained. “So let’s say you’ve had a mastectomy on just one side, you could pull the sleeve up on the other side to wash that arm.”
Crites tried to engage a U.S. manufacturer, but she explained, “No one was interested in producing these at an affordable price. It would have been around $140 wholesale, and over $200 at retail,” she said. “I wanted to make a shirt that all women can afford.”
With the help of an import/export expert, Crites found the M Garment company in Guangzhou, China. They worked with her for over a year to complete the design. They have been producing the shirts since 2010. Now the shirt sells for around $75.
“I’ve spent more than a year on patent applications, regulatory documents, design patterns and prototypes for an overseas manufacturer,” she said. “I had no idea of the red tape involved in bringing a medical product to market.”
Crites was invited to appear on Lifetime Television’s “The Balancing Act” to discuss the Shower Shirt. The American Cancer Society has agreed to carry the product in its online store and also feature it in its “TLC” retail magazine. And Invacare, an Ohio-based international medical distributor, will position the product in both the North American market and more than 20 other countries.
Walmart.com picked up the Shower Shirt in August 2011. Crites established a relationship with CureDiva, a company that specializes in lifestyle needs of women who’ve had breast cancer treatment. Amazon picked up the shirt in late 2014.
Crites considered that “Mastectomy boutiques generally cover breast prostheses, mastectomy bras and camisoles. Those are all covered by Medicare.”
In an effort to get Medicare – and eventually other insurers – to cover the Shower Shirt for women after a mastectomy, Representatives Bill Posey (R) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), both of Florida, introduced the Post-Mastectomy Infection Risk Reduction Act of 2014 before the U.S. Congress.
Her invention took Crites to second place at the U.S. Small Business Association’s 2015 InnovateHER Challenge in Washington DC. The contest was sponsored by Microsoft.
Although it was and continues to be a long road, Lisa Crites is an example of someone who saw a problem, created a solution and brought it to market.