The summer after undergoing a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, Jodie Faber went for a swim in the East Bay in Traverse City. She said after climbing out of the water she was freezing and could not warm up. She also noticed her breasts had turned a concerning shade of bright red.
She could not figure out what was happening or why, and said a hot shower was the only way to warm her body back up. Faber experienced this throughout the summer and during the fall and spring as well.
During a trip to her plastic surgeon five years ago, Faber mentioned the problem she was experiencing. She learned the reason for it is that the implants don’t have anyway of warming up naturally after they become cold and because they are against the chest wall they cause the body’s temperature to drop.
“She told me lots of people have this problem and she suggested I use hand warmers,” Faber said. Hand warmers turned out to be a less than ideal and even dangerous suggestion. Faber said due to a lack of feeling the hand warmers burned her skin.
Frustrated, Faber began searching for other alternatives and discovered even more women than she’d imagined were struggling with this same issue. During a conversation with her daughter a light bulb went off. “She said wouldn’t it be great to develop a bra that keeps the cold out?” Faber said.
For many people that thought would have been wishful thinking relegated to the “if only” column of the mind and quickly dismissed, but a couple of years ago, Faber had the opportunity to bring the idea to a group of medical and engineering professionals.
An employee of Spectrum Health, Faber became aware of Spectrum Health Innovations, a company within the organization focused on developing new products based on employee ideas.
Anthony Lazarro, of Spectrum Health Innovations, said employees submit their ideas, which are then vetted by a team of engineers, clinical staff and business executives to determine viability in the marketplace. He said the ideas generally come from a problem the employee has encountered in his or her day-to-day work.
Faber presented her idea for a heated bra to the innovations team and to her surprise they thought it was a great idea.
Lazarro said the team began research to determine if the idea was already under development or in existence. He said in this case, the only similar product was a battery-operated bra.
“The reason battery operated bras don’t work is they are big, bulky and clunky. These women have gone through a lot with breast cancer and they want to get back to normalcy, and having a big, clunky bra takes away from the normalcy.”
Deciding the problem was widespread and not being adequately addressed, Spectrum Health Innovations decided to develop its own thermal bra. It partnered on the project with a group of Central Michigan University students studying fashion, design and merchandising to develop prototypes of the thermal bra.
“I’ve been working with the students for the last two years,” Faber said. She said she’s tested two of the prototypes that have been developed and both work.
“It’s very exciting,” she said.
The prototypes have also been tested on manikins that allow for data collection. They will next undergo a wear trial with volunteer participants.
“We are actually looking for additional volunteers, women ages 45 to 65 who have gone through a double mastectomy and have had reconstructive surgery,” Lazarro said.
Lazarro said he hopes to get the bras to market soon and he expects they might be made available online initially to ensure access for everyone. “We are looking to get it to women in the most efficient way possible,” he said, noting he also wants the final design to be affordable as well.
Faber has even higher hopes for where the bras end up. She said it’s been important to her that the final product isn’t just about the wiring and technology, but that it is also designed to look attractive and make women feel attractive when they see themselves in the bra.
“I want to see it in Victoria Secret,” she said. “I get up every single day, take a shower and look in the mirror and I have a constant reminder that I had cancer. When I first went to Central Michigan they said oh this is an easy thing, they do this for boots and other things, we just put batteries and wires in . . . and I said ‘oh no, not interested.’ I want to feel normal.
“They finally got it and understood what we are looking for and they came up with a couple very nice looking bras. I am very hopeful someday we are going to see them in Victoria’s Secret and be able to buy them and have the comfort we deserve.”
Faber said one of the biggest takeaways from her experience is realizing how often issues faced exclusively by women are ignored. “Women, as a rule, tend not to speak up when we encounter problems.”
She said finding out about Spectrum Health Innovations gave her the opportunity to speak up and help find a solution for her and other women.
She added, “If you don’t say anything nothing will get done, for sure. If you say something, something will happen. I think we sit back way too long and don’t do anything. We just settle and we don’t have to settle. It was amazing to me how many women have the same problem and nothing’s ever been done about it.”
Women interested in volunteering for the wear trial and meeting the criteria noted above are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.