In her 30s, shortly after getting married, Lisa Crites lost her mother in a car accident. She was devastated and sank into a severe depression. At the time, she wanted to reach out to other women who lost their mothers tragically but it was too difficult. A decade later, she felt the same helplessness when diagnosed with breast cancer, but on that occasion she decided to take control of the situation and user her experience to help others.
“When my mother died, I never found a platform to help others but equally I didn’t have the strength to do it. When I was diagnosed with cancer, although I had no control over the cancer in my body, I did have control over how I could use what I was going through to make life better for other women. By developing the Shower Shirt I was not only helping others, I was helping myself.”
A native of Missouri who followed the sun to Cocoa Beach, Florida, Crites was a health and medical TV reporter for many years in the Orlando market before becoming a media strategist for integrated healthcare systems and trauma centers. She spent years around doctors and healthcare issues and, although she was no expert, felt well educated on most clinical issues.
But all her experience was for naught when, two weeks short of her 42nd birthday, Crites was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I thought I was prepared, but playing a clinician on TV does not make you one in real life. I knew nothing in terms of what I was going to deal with,” Crites recalls.
To avoid chemo and radiation, she opted for a bilateral mastectomy and everything went well until after the surgery.
“My surgeon came into the room and told me I was going to have four drains in my breasts and that I wouldn’t be able to shower until they were removed due to the risk of infection. They came down to my knees and I thought ‘how is it that I never knew about this?’ Women have been going through mastectomies for 75 years so there’s got to be a product out there for taking a shower. I reached out to my medical contacts and got the same response from everyone … use a trash bag or Saran wrap! Can you believe it? More than 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, more than half of whom get breast amputation surgery, and 5-15% get infections and yet they still have to shower in trash bags.”
Crites turned to her brother, an architect, to help her design a shower garment she had in mind. He developed a schematic for her and her aunt and cousin, who are talented seamstresses, created the first prototype of what was to become The Shower Shirt. From there, Crites found an overseas manufacturer to make subsequent prototypes out of waterproof material, with elastic perimeters and internal pockets to host the weight of the drains. During that year of product development following her mastectomy, she found herself in and out of the hospital as she experienced complications from two hospital-acquired infections and had to undergo seven surgeries. With each procedure came more drains.
“I can laugh now, I was sick so many times that year and had drains in my body seven different times. Every time the doctor would say ‘now remember, you can’t get these drains wet,’ I would smile and think, ‘I’ve got another prototype I can test.’ I was the perfect patient. But really I knew nothing about what it would take, I just wanted to help women that had breast amputation. I didn’t want one more female in the shower with a trash bag. So reality went out the window. I was so emotionally incensed that I didn’t care how long it took.”
Being personally invested in the success of the product paid off and following a “soft” marketing campaign one year after she conceived of the idea, Crites approached a home medical equipment company that immediately bought 500 units.
“They saw the potential for how this could be used by other patient populations, those on dialysis, people with renal diseases, even patients recovering from rotator cuff, cardio-thoracic, ostomy, and tummy tuck surgery … but for me the emotional motivation came from helping breast cancer patients.”
The The Shower Shirt “had legs” and Crites knew it. She attended an Essentially Women breast cancer expo and was met by lines of people at her table saying they had come to the conference just to see her product. The size of the post-mastectomy industry was remarkable and yet no water-resistant garment had existed up to that point.
Despite the interest, Crites was to learn what kind of tough road lay ahead. She recalls reading The Impossible by Cynthia Kersey: “It’s harder to bring a product to the market that has never existed than to take something that already existed and change 10 or 15%. We still face hurdles despite having market acceptance. We’re fighting for Medicare coverage. It’s clinical protocol for physicians but there’s no law that requires reimbursement for shower cover for breast cancer patients although it does exist for dialysis patients.”
Crites has financed everything on her own. Remarkably, The Shower Shirt is debt free, all the inventory is paid for, and full liability insurance is in place. A year-and-a-half ago, she attained a patent. “We feel good. We’re on Amazon and Walmart.com and finally at a point where we’d like to partner with a large medical device distribution company to get out more broadly in the market.”
Today Crites is lobbying hard and legislation has been filed to get Medicare coding (The Post-Mastectomy Infection Reduction Act by Congressman Bill Posey and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) and she’s in it for the long haul.
“It’s a peak and valley. There were days I got up in the morning and asked myself ‘What am I thinking starting a company out of my bedroom with drains hanging out of my body?’ But that voice in my head kept telling to keep doing what I’m doing. In all honesty, it was a cathartic project for me and helped me take back control over a situation that was out of control, but I also found a platform to help other women. The survivors I’ve met have changed my life.”
This past month, Crites came 2nd out of 15 finalists in the Small Business Administration’s national InnovateHER pitch competition, which acknowledges products and services that have a meaningful impact on women’s lives. She walked away with a $10,000 check but – more importantly – validation of what she has achieved. “I know I’m helping people but it’s a very niche product; it’s very personal to me and that’s why it’s so special. If patients needing this type of product believe what I’ve done is good, then it must be good.”
- Starting a business – especially a product that has not existed before – is very difficult. You have to have so much resolve whether you make money or not. You have to get up every day and run the business if your goal is to see it through. It’s difficult to maintain the power of positive thinking but you must sustain.
- For me, it was important to have a varying array of skill sets behind me. My media and corporate communications background helped. The fact that I’ve been fiscally conservative over the years helped me finance my own project, thus, not needing investors to fund my idea.
- Check, check, and recheck. When I first started this project – I overpaid for entirely too many services. From printing costs, to website build-out, and even a few non-needed business conferences. Always check referrals for the best services and better pricing. For me, pennies mattered and I initially spent too many.