I was busy with orders from a successful fashion show I’d exhibited at, when in March 2013 I swapped the catwalk for a hospital ward after a sudden kidney cancer diagnosis. Until that morning, my only experience of being an inpatient was giving birth to my two daughters.
Despite being in agonising pain from a haemorrhaging tumour, my main concern had been what to wear to hospital! My wardrobe was ill prepared for the major surgery I was about to receive.
My rude awakening took me via three hospitals in two blue light ambulances and the procedures that followed were hard to take in. For that reason I began taking notes; partly as a record but also to put the worries and fears down on paper, things I was afraid to ask.
One of the most startling realisations, when I was admitted, was the lack of privacy afforded to patients. For a start, you’re put into a flimsy gown with a peek-a-boo fastening at the rear.
Attempts to hide your modesty aren’t easy when you’re only divided from your neighbours by a curtain. The sights, sounds (and yes smells) were a revelation! I had never felt as uncomfortable in my life, it was as though all dignity was stripped away with your clothes.
As the tumour was within my kidney, both were removed with a keyhole nephrectomy; I was also learning a whole new language. Within a couple of weeks I’d been catheterised, irrigated, and embolised. Rather than conversing with models, my new companions were mainly elderly renal patients who referred to me in hushed voices as having ‘the cancer’.
By the time I left hospital, my notebook was filled with procedures, observations, and questions. I had been, and still was, completely in the hands of the medical staff who had saved my life. The thought of business as usual terrified me: How could I contemplate taking orders I may not be able to fulfil?
With this in mind, I closed my business and took my social media accounts offline. Fashion seemed very superficial in the face of a life-threatening disease and how could I be ‘fun and funky’ when I felt so bad?
It would be several weeks before I had the courage to speak about what I’d been through. I’d transferred my notes to a blog and written retrospectively about my experience. It was through this that I began to venture back online and eventually posted on my Facebook page about my experience.
The response was overwhelming, so much so that even though the heartfelt messages of support were sincere, I decided to delete Facebook completely. I couldn’t get my head around the whole turn of events. Sympathy didn’t suit me.
My sewing machine had been neglected for months by now and it was after a regular outpatients appointment that my creativity was kick-started. I’d been put into yet another hospital gown, this time, to save my blushes a second gown was given so I wore one to the front, the other to the back. It occurred to me that there was a better way. What about one and a half gowns?
The idea for the design I came up with was from a wrap-around dress I’d made. Instead of securing it with ties, I added an extra armhole – put both of your arms into the gown sleeves then pull across a third armhole over the top of one sleeve. No ties, fastenings or malfunctions. Completely covered but easily accessible.
Tentatively, I began showing my design to people, first family of whom both daughters are now nurses. Then friends in the nursing profession and when I’d plucked up courage, to other medical professionals. The response was excellent. I took the gown to patient groups and got the same reaction. ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’
You may think that this is where I return to work fully and make a success of my new design. Wrong. Cancer not only took my kidney, it stole my confidence. Instead of moving forward, I sat on my hospital gown design for another five years!
In the meantime, I did however continue with my blog. So encouraging were the comments I received from An Unfashionable Cancer, that I took the advice to write a book based on my story. For help with this, I joined a local writing group and rekindled a childhood passion for writing poems and stories. All the time I worked on my book with their help and the support of my family.
Fast forward to the present and thanks to the power of blogging, my hospital gown is finally getting the attention it needs. A wonderful blog review of the Coverstory Hospital Gown led to the discovery of an online campaign to end unnecessary use of the hospital gown.
I joined the #downwiththegown hashtag adding my own design as an alternative that could save dignity and get rid of fiddly fastenings. The response was amazing. The flurry of activity surrounding the gown has meant radio interviews and national newspaper coverage.
My unique selling point isn’t only the fact I’ve discovered a way to save dignity without ties, it is also that I am a patient; designing an alternative gown for patients. When you lose your health, you shouldn’t have to lose your dignity.
My patient experience continues as I’m currently being treated for a brain lesion. Orders are coming in for my gown and this time I’m continuing to work. The book is currently being edited but, the story continues.
*** Image credit: Freepik
Debbie Murphy is a clothing designer and writer with an interest in improving the way patients are clothed in hospitals. Her blog, An Unfashionable Cancer, is currently being edited as a book.