Cuddly Guts Bring Comfort to the Chronically Ill

I Heart Guts
I Heart Guts

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

Move Over Dogs, Goats, and Peacocks: Llamas Are the Hot New Therapy Animal

jensenwy/iStock via Getty Images
jensenwy/iStock via Getty Images

Possibly because Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and the rest of the reindeer are pretty busy at this time of year, Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Portland, Oregon, is offering guests the chance to hang out with a few jolly llamas instead.

The Washington Post reports that the friendly, festively dressed llamas belong to Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, which usually brings them to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, senior communities, hospice care, special-needs organizations, and even schools. According to the organization’s website, the visits help “alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress.”

And, though the clinical benefits to the Kimpton’s guests haven’t been proven, hotel manager Travis Williams confirms that everyone definitely loves spending time with the quirky quadrupeds. Last year, after overwhelmingly positive reactions to the llama visits, the hotel decided to bring them back.

“Once we saw the joy that it brought people, we just kept going,” Williams told The Washington Post.

While it might seem like the use of llamas for therapy is a characteristically Portland-ish idea, it’s not the only place you can find them. The New York Times reports that 20 llamas and alpacas are registered with Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization for therapy animals, and many others are owned and trained by private family farms across the country.

Jeff and Carol Rutledge, for example, have 13 llamas and alpacas on their property in Stockdale, Texas, outside San Antonio. Three of them are registered therapy animals, having passed a test that includes being touched by strangers and staying unaffected while people argue near them.

During their visits to assisted living facilities, veterans’ homes, and other events in the area, the Rutledges have observed the animals having a profound effect on residents’ behavior. One man, who is nonverbal and recovering from a motorcycle accident, will murmur as he grooms one of the llamas. And the Rutledges’ high-school-aged daughter, Zoe, even did a science experiment for her 4-H club that showed the residents’ blood pressure is lower after visiting with the llamas.

While there’s not a very high chance of seeing therapy llamas in airports just yet, you might be lucky enough to see something a little smaller—like LiLou, San Francisco International Airport’s first therapy pig.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Nike Is Releasing a Durable Slip-On Sneaker Designed for Medical Professionals

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

Nike is known for releasing footwear that covers just about every activity under the moon—impact-absorbing running shoes, sleek soccer cleats, snazzy fashion statements, and so much more. Now, they’ve developed a sneaker for nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals who spend long shifts on their feet.

According to a press release, Nike sent designers to the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where they learned from healthcare providers exactly what their jobs entail. Then, they used their findings to create the Nike Air Zoom Pulse, a “traditional clog made athletic.”

nike air zoom pulse
Nike

If you’ve ever gone sightseeing in a new city or even just taken a longer-than-expected afternoon stroll, you might have experienced firsthand that even your most comfortable walking shoes stop being so comfortable after a few miles of non-stop action—and nurses experience that type of exercise every time they go to work. During a regular 12-hour shift, a nurse might walk between four and five miles and sit for less than an hour. To account for that, the Nike Air Zoom Pulse features a full-rubber outsole, a flexible drop-in midsole, arch support, and a “heel fit so secure [that] it feels like a soft, snug hug.”

nike air zoom pulse
Nike

Since healthcare professionals also need a shoe durable enough to withstand spills of any kind, Nike coated the top of the Air Zoom Pulse with a polyurethane layer that’s easy to wipe down. It’s also a laceless slip-on, so people won’t have to worry about tripping on untied laces—and they’ll also be able to slip their shoes off for a quick nap in the staff room.

nike air zoom pulse
Nike

Six patients at the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital have contributed vibrant, colorful designs for the Air Zoom Pulse, which Nike will release for online orders (in versions that include its own colorways) starting December 7.

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