“It’s an intimate topic, so people in general don’t realize.”
Thermal bra team – Spectrum Health, Spectrum Health Innovations and Central Michigan University. L to R: Mike Czechowskyj, Jodie Faber, Sue Wroblewski, Augusta Overy, Emily Austin, Haley Rusicka, Maureen Macgillivray
Thermal bra prototype
CMU students working on designs
Cancer survivors are not complainers. They have learned to take the daily inconveniences of life in stride, because they’ve learned to appreciate what really matters: being healthy again,being alive.
“Women don’t like to talk about this problem to outsiders, but they do talk to each other about it,” says Jodie Faber, BS, CWP, manager, Spectrum Health United Lifestyles. “It’s an intimate topic, so people in general don’t realize.”
Faber knows. Not only does she work in health care, but she also knows, intimately, the patient’s perspective. Faber is a breast cancer survivor, and she has had a double mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction.
“When you have reconstructive surgery for breast implants, tissue is removed down to the muscle, so there is no longer any blood flow,” Faber says. “Implants stay cold. Very cold. All the time.”
It’s like wearing ice blocks on your chest, she says. Her wish, and the unspoken wish of approximately 4 million women who have undergone reconstructive surgery over the past 15 years, is to have a bra that is comfortable, pretty, easy to wear—and warm.
Faber brought her problem to Spectrum Health Innovations, who then teamed up with students at Central Michigan University to design a thermal bra.
Pablo Parraga-Ramirez, PhD, senior project coordinator, CMU, took on project oversight first in the engineering department. “My students assessed what was the best path to move forward, isolating the breast or having a heat source added to the bra.”
Parraga-Ramirez brought in Maureen Macgillivray, professor, fashion merchandising and design, and Sue Wroblewski, research lab coordinator, Center for Merchandising and Design Technology, to design the thermal bra with their team of students.
“We have a lab where we can do thermal testing on a mannequin with 46 zones to measure heat,” Macgillivray explains. “We put the mannequin in an environmental chamber and used a thermal camera.”
“The bra had to be insulated as well as to protect the wearer from wind,” Wroblewski says. “We had to find the thinnest, lightest textiles and use a multi-layer concept without underwires that could dig into the body, and we worked on designing molded cups that gave just enough coverage.”
Faber was a willing model, offering feedback throughout several prototypes. “The students hadn’t even seen what a mastectomy looks like when they began. I’m not shy—I showed them my scars. At that point, they got it. I love what they came up with.”
The students attended the CMU New Venture Competition and pitched their startup company that will design and produce the new bra, Embrace, to a panel of judges. They were awarded $250 for second runner-up pitch.
“The chance to participate in a project that can help people in need like breast cancer survivors is super motivating. One of our students mentioned the experience of working on this project during her job interview and got hired and offered a better position.”
“I want to feel normal again. I want to go for a swim and not come out of the water and feel like I have two ice packs strapped to my chest. I want to feel pretty. The thermal bra has made me into a cheerleader for SHI—and I’m proud of the team at CMU, my alma mater.”