Inside A Bag, a Hug
The statistics are sobering.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States. Almost everyone either has had or knows someone who has had the terminal illness. And the terror of treatment needs little explanation.
With all the negativity, it’s easy for patients to become despondent. But cliché as it may sound, there’s hope.
Back in 1993, following graduation from Johns Hopkins Medical School, Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson devoted herself to taking care of women. What’s followed is a lengthy career dedicated to assisting those in need, using the latest cutting-edge technology available to treat patients.
But Thompson’s most spectacular achievement isn’t the care she’s provided in the operating room: it’s what she does in the recovery room.
Thompson felt that while the surgeries and radiation treatment for cancer have progressed remarkably in the past few decades, the garments available to patients had not. Designed in the 1970s, they did not reflect the needs of the modern woman.
Enter BFFL Co.
Meaning “Best Friends For Life,” BFFL Co is one of those heartwarming stories all too lacking in today’s economic climate. But given that climate, it’s all the more inspiring.
With innovative products such as the BFFLBag® and the Masthead® bra, the company’s goal is to help patients not only feel their best, but also look their best. In 2011, the Breast BFFLBag® and axilla•pilla® were launched. Soon after, Thompson — herself a breast cancer survivor — and her best friend, registered nurse Sara Kerr Reges, expanded the line with the Neuro/Brain BFFLBag® for patients recovering from traumatic brain injuries, strokes, and other head trauma; other bags, such as those for expectant mothers, have followed.
As the company’s Web site states, the bags represent “a hug.” But they are also more than that. With 15 percent of sales going to charities that fund research and support for treating various conditions (the exact condition depends on the product purchased, i.e. proceeds from a Breast BFFLBag® go to fund breast cancer research), the products carry a degree of self-destructive fatalism: the hope that, one day, they are not needed.
Thompson recently took some time out of her busy schedule to be interviewed by GALO. Here’s what she had to say.
GALO: How did the idea for your bags and garments come about?
Elizabeth Thompson: I saw the patient need first hand — both as a doctor and a patient who underwent a double mastectomy myself. I began designing “homemade” recovery bags that were both stylish and highly functional. It started overtaking my basement, and the patient demand and positive feedback led me to turn it into a real business, the Best Friends for Life Company (or BFFL Co).
The fashionable and comfortable surgical bras I design came about again because of patient need. The surgical bras on the market were all designed by people who had never had surgery or known what it was like to recover. In fact, there were no changes in design since the 1970’s. I spent a lot of time creating the right fabric, cut, and design that would allow a woman to recuperate in both comfort and style.
GALO: Why bags rather than, say, T-shirts?
ET: I wanted all of our designs to be functional, not just serve as disease awareness products. I felt it was important to design garments and bags that could truly help the recovery for women and men. Yes, we do give a percentage of profits to related charities, but the actual patient comes first.
GALO: What is the philosophy behind your products?
ET: Our mission is to improve patient experience; everything we do has the idea of recovery behind its function and style. Most items available for patients in a hospital are either ugly and utilitarian or pretty, but useless. I wanted our products to be tasteful, classy, chic, and most of all, functional and useful for recuperation.
GALO: Could you explain the name Best Friends For Life? What’s the story behind it?
ET: When we were thinking of a name for the company, a good friend of mine suggested BFFL which stands for Best Friends For Life. It has the message of friendship, life, optimism, and BFFLBag® has a nice ring to it.
Masthead® (the garment label) comes from my own love of the ocean and the figurehead that I saw growing up: the woman, often Lady Jane, who perches off the front of a ship [who] was meant to guide sailors (those on a journey) through the waters safely. The symbol is one of strength, grace and perseverance. Mast(o) is the combining form for “breast” in medical terminology.
GALO: What goes into the design process of a BFFLBag®?
ET: For the BFFLBags®, first of all it has to be functional, comfortable on the shoulder or in one’s hand, lightweight (less than five lbs. loaded), spacious without being enormous, surface washable, and attractive. We wanted patients to feel fashionable. Stripes are very trendy right now, but we felt they conveyed a message of timeless, effortless fashion with a sporty and health positive twist, so that became our favored fabric choice for women. For men, we wanted a more masculine look and went for metallic gray. We also thought of small details such as a zipper that would be easy for patients to open and highly durable and metal footings on the bottom of the BFFLBags® so that the bags would never touch the hospital floor.
GALO: In addition to bags, you have bras for women who are undergoing breast cancer treatment. Could you explain a little bit about your approach to these?
ET: The Masthead® garments are comfort driven, functional, with the latest materials taken from the new trends in sportswear: mild compression with comfort for post-surgical recovery. All garments are easy to put on and take off, machine washable, and attractive in color and design. I worked on the design for several months with a sketchbook with dozens of prototypes made from every material imaginable at home in my sewing room, then with three different samples makers in three locations — Baltimore, NYC, and then New Jersey – until a working sample and fit was achieved. Then we made a limited number and tested them on the open market.
GALO: You also recently came out with a line of boxer briefs for men who have undergone prostate surgery. Why menswear also?
ET: Our boxer briefs have a convenient pouch for an icepack — need I say more? Men rarely ask for things when they are sick, but they deserve comfort and style, too.
GALO: Why the need for patients to feel stylish before, during, and after their hospital stay?
ET: It’s all about maintaining dignity. When you feel good about how you look, you begin to feel better. It’s impossible for many patients to get to the shower or even brush their teeth, or clip a hangnail. We want to give patients a way to recover, regain dignity, and return to their lives.
GALO: What are some challenges you have faced?
ET: What challenge haven’t we faced? Rejection, financial, manpower, Web site, and difficulty in being found by the general public; I have turned down joint venture partnerships at the 11th hour, said no to predatory investors, no thank you to a lot of invitations for “opportunities” that are hardly such. I have had to turn offers down for help that had strings attached: trips to exotic places with C.E.O.’s of companies in exchange for “business.” Fortunately, I’ve had great mentors who have helped to steer me in the right direction.
GALO: You’ve received a lot of press. But what has the patient response been?
ET: Press gets the word out, which is fantastic. Testimonials, thanks yous from hospitals, patients, caregivers, and repeat orders are what keep us going.
GALO: What are BFFL Co’s plans for the future? Any plans to expand the line?
ET: BFFLBags® are endless in their customization options because the specialized needs of patients who enter the hospital for different reasons are endless. We recently launched a mommy/delivery BFFLBag® that is tailored for women undergoing childbirth. Our transplant and head trauma BFFLBags® are becoming more popular as well.
In addition, we plan to create a new-age garment line that is patient and physician friendly — goodbye 1970s corset recovery garments. We have a completely revolutionary line of garments going through FDA approval, but can’t be discussed until completed and patents secured.
GALO: Anything else you’d like to say?
ET: Thank you. Please tell your readers to send ideas for new products for patients our way and be sure to check out our site at bfflco.com!
For more information concerning the project or to send your ideas, visit www.bfflco.com.