It all began with a broken heart. Artist Wendy Bryan Lazar was sitting in a bar after a breakup in 1999, drinking and drawing, when an anatomically correct cartoon heart appeared on the page. “I wonder what the other organs look like,” Lazar thought. She drew a sad liver and a “bummed-out” lung. Then she put them away.
But the organs wouldn’t die, Lazar tells mental_floss. She doodled them over and over in between graphic design projects. She met a man in 2001—an “awesome” man—and they married two years later. Her husband couldn’t help but notice Lazar’s fixation on the cute guts. He encouraged her to do something with them. Lazar pitched the concept to her clients, who all took a hard pass. “You should just do it,” Lazar’s husband said in 2004. So she did.
The next year, Lazar started a website called I Heart Guts to sell buttons and stickers featuring eight friendly organs, “and then I just sort of forgot about it,” she says. About six months after the website launched, the requests began. People with diabetes wanted a pancreas. Fans with renal disease asked for a cuddly kidney.
The organs had touched a nerve. “I thought that weird people would like these, or maybe med students,” Lazar says. “But I didn’t think that much about people whose organs are working against them inside their bodies.”
The chronic illness community quickly became Lazar’s biggest market, and it’s no wonder: chronic illnesses affect about 133 million Americans [PDF], or 40 percent of the population. People who live with chronic illness never get a break from being sick; their medical issues are with them seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Symptoms wax and wane, leading to unpredictable health. Limitations and loss can erode a person's wellbeing. The emotional burden of chronic illness is often just as great as the illness itself.
“That very clearly became a huge part of why I Heart Guts was working and growing,” Lazar says. ”People who are having a hard time with their illness need to laugh.”
Things really took off when Lazar started offering plush versions of her guts in 2007. People love being able to give new organs to loved ones undergoing surgery or living with disease. Letters began pouring in from people who were using the stuffed guts to cope.
“I have ulcerative colitis and and having my colon completely removed January 16,” reads one testimonial on the I Heart Guts website. “The plush will be my buddy for my hospital stay. I've named him Chester. He is my healthy colon that will never hurt me. Thank you for doing what you do ... You are helping us maintain our humour in dark times."
Joan, 19, has her eye on the Super Big Big Heart. “I like the idea of having a HUGE heart that could do its job well,” she tells mental_floss. Joan has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a neurological condition that causes fainting spells, dangerously low blood pressure, nausea, and crushing fatigue, among other things. Some POTS cases, like Joan’s, are associated with a small heart. Joan says the sight of an enormous cuddly heart “helps me remember that while my illness is an important part of my identity, there's a lot more to me than that.”
“The pancreases are a pretty big part of our family since we all have crappy ones,” Shay, 28, says. Shay and her siblings have chronic hereditary pancreatitis, a rare illness with tough symptoms like intense abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
Like her illness, Shay’s relationship with the plush pancreas varies by the day. “If it’s a bad day,” she says, “it’s something I can be mad at.” Other times she uses it as a teaching tool, to show the people in her life how the illness works, and what went on in her surgeries.
Lazar’s menagerie of stuffed organs continues to grow in response to requests. At this writing, the collection includes 29 colorful plush characters, including a uterus, a spleen, and a prostate. Lazar won’t name a favorite. “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child,” she says.
She’s continually amazed at the responses to her products. “I have an amazing customer base that I love working with,” she says. “Every single organ has an interesting fan club.”
“There’s nothing special about our plush toys,” Lazar says. “They’re not filled with magic or candy or anything. It’s what people put into them that make them meaningful.”
The organs are available on the I Heart Guts website and in hospital and museum gift shops around the world. If you’ve got your eye on a particular organ, don’t wait—like any terrific gift, the plush guts sell out. “We’re completely out of kidneys, which is horrible for Christmas,” Lazar says. “People really want a kidney, but I just don’t have any more. And we’re running out of testicles.”
All photographs are courtesy of I Heart Guts.