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

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

7 Smart Cleaning Devices to Help Keep Your Allergies at Bay

iStock
iStock

Just because you hate cleaning doesn’t mean you need to live in filth. You may not be able to buy a robot maid straight out of The Jetsons (yet), but there are plenty of automated ways to clean your house, if you’re willing to shell out a few extra dollars for the joy of watching a machine do your work for you. Here are seven pieces of technology that can help you combat dust, dirt, and allergens at home without lifting a finger.

1. iRobot Roomba

A robot vacuum skirts the wall of a room with wooden floors.
iRobot

The Roomba has long been the gold standard in robotic vacuuming. While it may not be as effective as the human hand at getting into tight corners and over thick rugs, there’s no better way to clean the entire house while you sit on the couch watching television. You can preschedule cleanings so that your handy helper tidies up while you’re at work, and acoustic sensors help the robot flag particularly dirty patches of floor for extra attention. Newer versions are compatible with the Amazon Echo, meaning you can vacuum your home without even pressing a button. The higher-end models offer even more features: Roomba 900 series maps out its route through your home in the iRobot app to give you precise data on where it cleaned and what areas it spent the most time on, while the Roomba i7+ can empty its own dust bin.

Buy it on on Amazon starting at $270. In addition to Amazon, you can get the budget Roomba 675 from Best Buy, Walmart, or the retailers below:

2. Hoover REACT Vacuum

A Hoover React vacuum
Hoover

Hoover's REACT series of vacuums takes the upright to new heights. Outfitted with FloorSense technology, these smart vacuums know when you move from carpet to hard wood to tile, and can adjust the brush speed accordingly: On carpet, it'll use a faster brush speed to lift out stubborn dirt; when you move from the bedroom to the kitchen, the brush will slow down to prevent dirt debris from spreading. The REACT line is also Bluetooth compatible, so you can connect to the Hoover app in order to customize your FloorSense settings and monitor your machine's filter. The icing on the cake (for the pet-loving Mental Floss staff) is its superior suction and sealed allergen system that banishes pet hair from your upholstery and floor (at least temporarily).

Buy it on Amazon ($174), Walmart ($174), or from one of the retailers below:

3. Braava Jet

A Braava jet mops a hardwood floor while a dog looks on.
The Braava Jet 240

While iRobot’s foray into automated mopping isn’t as advanced as its vacuuming products, the Braava jet mopping ‘bot, first released in 2016, makes a decent pass at cleaning kitchens, bathrooms, and wood floors. Designed for any hard surface, the Braava 240 comes with three different settings—wet mopping, damp sweeping, and dry sweeping—and can be controlled using the iRobot app. The petite cube vibrates stains and dirt away using disposable pads ($8 for a 10-pack or $14 for two reusable pads) specific to the cleaning setting. The pricier, newer model, the Braava 380t, has just two settings—dry or a wet—but it can mop for up to 150 minutes on a single charge and is compatible with Swiffer and other cleaning cloths.

Buy it on Amazon ($170), Walmart ($185), or at one of the retailers below:

4. Everybot

A robot mop navigates around a planter in a living room.
Everybot

Funded on Indiegogo in 2017, the Korean-made Everybot packs more power than the Braava. It’s a little bigger and can’t be controlled by an app, but its dual-spinning mops are designed to tackle spills and tough stains across the house with one touch of a button. It comes equipped with six different cleaning patterns as well as the ability to control its direction manually with a remote control. The mopping pads can be thrown in the washing machine or scrubbed by hand. It can also function as a duster: The robot has a handle on top, and you can grab it and run it over any surface, including windows.

Buy it on Amazon for $304 or from one of the retailers below:

5. Litter-Robot

A cat sits inside the mouth of the Litter-Robot.
Litter-Robot

No one likes a full litter box—not even your cat. So unless you’ve trained your cat to go in the toilet, you could probably use a litter box robot to keep your scooping duties to a minimum. The Litter-Robot looks a little like a kitty rocket ship and can save you some major smells. When the cat steps on the sensor upon entering the box, it triggers a countdown clock to the next cleaning cycle. Seven minutes later, when your cat is long gone, the orb-like litter box rotates, sifting the waste down into a filtered storage bin below. You only need to empty out the waste bin every few days as it fills up, and there’s never a smell—perfect for a house with multiple cats. Some reviewers note that it cuts down on their litter-and-dust triggered allergies, too.

Buy it from Litter-Robot for $449.

6. Awair Air Quality Monitor

Awair air quality monitor
Awair

Get to the root of your airborne allergy problem by cleaning up the air you breathe. Awair tracks the five main factors contributing to the air quality in your home—temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, chemicals, and dust—and provides recommendations for changes you can make in order to improve your air quality. Awair is also compatible with Amazon Echo, Next, and IFTTT, which means it can direct your smart switch to turn on your humidifier if the humidity level drops, turn on the AC if your home gets too hot, or notify you if carbon dioxide levels rise. (The company also makes a smaller version called the Awair Glow that doubles as a smart plug.)

Buy it on Amazon for $163 or from one of the retailers below:

7. GermGuardian 4-In-1 Air Cleaning System

GermGuardian smart air filtration system
GermGuardian

Outfitted with a True HEPA filter, this air cleaning system from GermGuardian captures 99.97 percent of allergens and asthma triggers, including pet dander and pollen, as well as reduces airborne bacteria. Use the corresponding app to monitor and control your home’s air quality from anywhere.

Buy it on Amazon ($148), Walmart ($144), or one of the retailers below:

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