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

6 Dreaded Tasks That Are Actually Great For Managing Stress

iStock.com/gilaxia
iStock.com/gilaxia

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can wreak havoc on your body. (According to a recent study on middle-aged adults, stress not only impairs memory but may even cause the brain to shrink!) Thankfully, some commonly dreaded activities can help reduce your frazzled state.

1. Washing the Dishes

According to a 2014 study published in the journal Mindfulness, a “mindful” approach to dishwashing could reduce stress. “A sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experience recall,” the study states. “Mindful dishwashers evidenced … increases in elements of positive affect (i.e., inspiration) [and] decreases in elements of negative affect (i.e., nervousness)." In other words, with the right mindset, zoning out in front of a sudsy sink is basically Nirvana.

2. Decluttering Your Home

Research suggests that clutter is more likely to stress out women. In 2010, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked to see how married couples dealt with (and felt about) messy homes [PDF]. “The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day,” Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi wrote in The New York Times. "Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the days.” So tidy up!

3. Exercising In A Group

Working out can feel like a chore, and exercising with a group can be a tad embarrassing—especially if you’re not on the same fitness level as everybody else. But according to research in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, exercising with a group is more beneficial at reducing stress than working out alone. “Researchers found that working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent,” according to the press release. Go ahead and book that spin class!

4. Sniffing Your Partner’s Laundry

No sane person puts “sniff your significant other's dirty socks” on their to-do list, but perhaps they should. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that sniffing a loved one’s clothes can reduce stress. In the study, 96 women sniffed one of three scents—a neutral smell, their romantic partner’s scent, or the scent of a stranger. The stranger’s smell caused cortisol to spike. But their partner’s smell? It reduced stress.

5. Dwelling On Your Failures

The title of this study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in 2018, says it all: “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress.” According to the study, “[W]riting about a previous failure may allow an individual to experience a new stressor as less stressful, reducing its physiological and behavioral effects.” It sounds paradoxical, but the next time you're facing a crazy situation, just reflect on a time when it all went wrong—and things might not feel so bad.

6. Singing For All to Hear

For the shy and tone-deaf, singing in a group might be a anxiety-fueled nightmare—but they should try it anyway. A pilot study presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference last year showed that, in people with Parkinson's disease, singing in a group can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. (Researchers cautioned that this is preliminary data.) The findings jibe with a 2016 study from Drexel University that found, no matter your skill level, making art usually reduces cortisol levels [PDF].

Nearly Half of American Adults Don't Know Their Own Blood Type

iStock.com/nzphotonz
iStock.com/nzphotonz

If you know your blood type, you’re better off than nearly half of Americans. Of the 1004 adults in the U.S. who answered a recent Quest Diagnostics survey, only 57 percent said they knew whether they have type A, B, AB, or O blood.

This is roughly the same number of people who could recall their childhood phone number (55 percent), the survey revealed. By comparison, 74 percent of respondents remembered their lengthy Wi-Fi password, and 75 percent knew how much money was in their bank account.

For many, other personal health information was even murkier. Fewer than two in five people knew their cholesterol or blood sugar levels. Considering that these details provide important insights into one’s risk for certain diseases, survey administrators said this is a cause for concern.

“With consumers increasingly engaged in their own and their loved ones’ health care, it’s critical that they ‘know their numbers’—and have those numbers readily accessible—to ensure productive communication with their healthcare provider for both routine and critical care,” Cathy Doherty of Quest Diagnostics said in a press release.

With the exception of emergencies, at which time you may receive a universal donor's O-negative blood, doctors will almost always conduct blood typing and cross-matching tests to determine your blood type and identify minor antigens in your blood before conducting a transfusion or surgery.

It’s still important to know your blood type for other reasons. Newborn babies, for example, can develop hemolytic disease if their Rh blood type (meaning whether it's positive or negative) doesn’t match their mother's. And depending on your blood type, you may also have an increased risk for blood clots, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even severe diarrhea and mosquito bites.

If you know your blood type, you’re also in a better position to donate blood and help people in need if there’s a natural disease or emergency, or if blood banks simply have a low supply. O blood tends to be the highest in demand (and O-positive is the most common blood type), but blood banks may issue public notices from time to time if they need a particular type.

If you’re unsure of your blood type, clinical labs like Quest Diagnostics offer blood type tests. You can also order test kits online from Amazon.

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