The shimmer of hope that carried Cindy Mesaros through her medical ordeal came in whimsical pastels.
When the San Francisco woman underwent an emergency cesarean section, narrowly saving her daughter after an umbilical cord rupture, she was wearing a patterned hospital gown she had purchased with giving birth in mind. And when things got dicey, the gown helped her get through, she said.
“It sounds vain and trivial, but I think it matters,” she said. “Labor is such a difficult and scary thing, anything that gives you back that sense of confidence helps.”
The purchase put her among an increasing number of patients, and a small but growing set of providers, calling for hospital wear that doesn’t sacrifice fashion for function. Patients say the chic gowns make them feel a little better at a time when any positive moment helps. In some cases they ensure modestly and discretion for specific medical conditions.
Rachel Zinny, president of dearjohnnies, which offers birthing gowns in five pastel patterns and is poised to launch a bolder, funkier line, said she founded the company after wishing she’d had on something livelier to brighten up the earliest photos of her firstborn.
“I felt like I looked like a prisoner in a one-size-fits-all gown that someone could have had a heart attack in the day before,” she said. “Having a baby is an extraordinary experience, and moms deserve to look and feel special.”
Giving ‘modesty and dignity back to women’
Dearjohnnies also carries matching swaddling blankets for newborns, so they can shine in their first photos, too. Prices range from the $26 blankets to the $70 robes.
Zinny said she has been receiving requests for non-maternity hospital gowns and plans to expand her collection to include sizes for all women and children.
Women searching for stylish garments for general hospital use can turn to Spirited Sisters Inc., an enterprise inspired by the sickbed experiences of two sisters diagnosed with cancer within six months.
After Peg Feodoroff learned she had melanoma in 2002, and Claire Goodhue received her colon cancer diagnosis in 2003, the pair enlisted their third sister, Patty O’Brien, to achieve their longtime dream of going into business together.
“We knew what we needed because we’d both been on the cancer merry-go-round,” Feodoroff said. “We wanted to give modesty and dignity back to women at the time when they most needed it.”
The resulting Original Healing Threads collection features drawstring and breakaway pants. Oriental-inspired and wrap tops, complete with removable panels that allow for examination without complete disrobing, are equipped with deep interior pockets that hold drainage bags, pumps and monitors more discreetly - and fashionably -than did the “humiliating” fanny pack the hospital handed Goodhue.
All garments are made with a stain-resistant microfiber fabric, with prices ranging from $39.95 to $89.95.
Three percent of profits go to the “Claire Fund” for single mothers with cancer, in memory of Goodhue, who died in 2006.
‘Friends just think I’ve gotten a new outfit’
Marie Coppola, of Reading, Mass., said she is wearing Spirited Sisters while she recovers from her mastectomy because she doesn’t want visitors seeing her in a hospital-issued johnnie.
“To walk around, I’d be trying to hold the I.V. in one hand and keep the johnnie closed with the other,” she said. “Now friends just think I’ve gotten a new outfit. It doesn’t look like medical wear.”
Patients’ desire for more attractive attire should come as no surprise to the health care industry, said Beth Allen, manager of outpatient services for women at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.
Several surveys, including one conducted by Northside, showed women’s opinions of themselves affect the actual length of recovery from an illness or medical procedure, as well as perceptions during recovery, she said.
Allen, who runs a hospital boutique providing accessories for female cancer patients and new mothers, said details matter to women trying to regain control over lives rapidly thrown into chaos.
A fashionable gown is “not going to give your sleep back or make you a wonderful mother or make your cancer go away, but it does give you some choices back,” she said.
While the health care industry is beginning to pay more attention to the patient experience, Northside, like most hospitals, doesn’t provide chic johnnies. Big institutions trying to supply individualized garments hit stumbling blocks, Allen said, like finding material sturdy enough to withstand repeated laundering, ordering appropriate amounts of each size and agreeing on designs for men and women.
‘We live in these eight hours a day’
Patients generally don’t need permission to wear their own gowns, but have to make their own laundry arrangements once they’ve stepped outside the hospital garment system.
Though companies like Feodoroff’s and Zinny’s are filling the gap while hospitals catch up, some facilities are already there.
Hackensack University Medical Center provides garments by designer Nicole Miller to all patients, “from bariatric to newborns,” according to Marijane Hubbell, a registered nurse who was involved in selecting the design.
Since the program’s launch in 1999, the hospital has faced problems with material and sizing, but Hubbell said staff stuck with it.
“Sometimes you’re so sick, you’re looking for any way to keep the disease from defining you,” she said.
Likewise, Dana Meyer, clinical coordinator at Village Dental in Lady Lake, Fla., changed her own garb to enhance the patient experience. This year, she dressed her staff in items from Peaches Uniforms’ “Katherine Heigl Collection:” sleek, V-neck scrubs inspired by the actress’s character on the hit ABC show “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“When you walk into a medical office, it’s disorienting. There’s a hodgepodge of colors,” Meyer said. “It’s more soothing for patients to see us in soft tones.”
Plus, she added, there are benefits for the staff.
“We live in these eight hours a day,” she said. “They give us a more professional, tailored look.”