ZipTees make life easier for patients undergoing chemo

Nonprofit seeks sponsors to bring special shirts to cancer patients

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published July 26, 2016

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Inspired by their friend’s struggle against cancer, two recent Lamphere High graduates have come up with an innovative quality-of-life product for those undergoing chemotherapy.

Many patients have a port inserted in their chest under the collarbone where a nurse can insert a needle to administer chemotherapy instead of in the arm. This means patients often have to tug on their collars or lift their shirts to provide access.

But with a new shirt called a ZipTee, they can simply unzip an opening in the shirt under the left shoulder and above the left breast. It’s a T-shirt that helps preserve their sense of dignity and normalcy during chemotherapy. And it’s made from super soft material that’s easy on sensitive skin.

Ismail Aijazuddin and Kristin Smith, two Lamphere High grads now in college, first created the shirts last July. They spent the rest of the year testing them with patients and nurses, refining them based on feedback, and changing features such as shirt materials as they learned more about what people with cancer wanted.

They incorporated their organization, ZipTee, on Dec. 22, 2015 — what would’ve been the 20th birthday of their friend and classmate Kayla Kincannon, who died from brain cancer just shy of their high school graduation in May 2014.

Kayla was well-loved by everyone who knew her — a girl of deep faith wise beyond her years, fondly remembered for her kindness. She continues to inspire her friends to this day.

This includes their work bringing the Head for the Cure 5K walk/run to the Detroit area to raise money for brain cancer research. The inaugural race was in 2014 and has since raised more than $120,000 for the cause. The next race is Saturday, Sept. 17, on the Detroit Riverfront.

As for ZipTee, it’s now a licensed 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Smith said in an email that ZipTee has been another way for them to honor the legacy of their friend.

“Working on ZipTee has helped me cope with the loss of Kayla,” Smith said. “She was my best friend, so knowing we can make someone else’s life even just a little bit easier because of her makes me believe it’s all worth it. I’d like to see us move into more service, helping people financially and making people feel less alone. Right now, we’re still trying to get ZipTee off the ground, so we’ve really been focusing on adapting to what patients would like to see.”

They started doing nonprofit work in Kayla’s honor in the winter of 2014. At that point they hadn’t begun to consider the issue of port access, but they wanted to generate their own revenue so they wouldn’t have to rely on donations. To earn revenue, they began screen-printing shirts after a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a screen press.

“We quickly realized that we wanted to use our screen-printing skills to provide direct service to people fighting cancer, and then we noticed that many people with ports, like Kayla, had struggled to find suitable clothing to wear during chemotherapy,” Aijazuddin said in an email.

“Finally, after cutting apart many old shirts and learning to sew, we came upon a suitable ZipTee design that nurses and patients approve of.”

Patients have told them that they want shirts that are as discreet and “normal” as possible. Soon they’ll be testing shirts without ZipTee’s logo — a zippered awareness ribbon — to see if patients prefer those. They are also considering a variant for kids with a cape on the back, so that they can feel like superheroes. And long-sleeved models are being planned for the fall and winter.

Between donations and sales of the shirt on their website, ziptee.org, Aijazuddin and Smith have already distributed more than 100 ZipTees.

The only people paid are the seamstresses who sew the shirts. When someone pays for a shirt, the money goes right back into helping other patients.

ZipTee also has a sponsorship program where someone can donate to cover the costs of a shirt, and ZipTee will then donate a large number of shirts at a time to a local clinic.

“We currently sell our shirts online, but in a perfect world, we’d have every ZipTee sponsored,” Smith said. “Now that we’re an established 501(c)(3) organization, we hope finding sponsors and donors will become easier. We find patients through paid advertisements like Facebook ads, as well as through nurses, family, friends and other cancer organizations.”

Aijazuddin was able to secure a stipend to devote this summer to ZipTee, thanks to the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program at Duke University. He also received mentorship on launching the business. The stipend covered costs such as website upkeep, shirt production and advertising. In addition, they received a $1,000 donation from the Head for the Cure Foundation, which they used to fund their application for tax exemption, along with a donation to a local clinic.

Now their work continues. 

“Through our work with ZipTee, we have found a way to honor Kayla while learning more and more about what patients need,” Aijazuddin said. “I’m excited to see our work with the shirts accelerate now that we’ve achieved tax exemption, and I hope that our conversation with people fighting cancer will give us inspiration to create new novel solutions to the challenges they face.

“We watched Kayla and her family struggle so much,” he added. “We just want to make life easier for those who are suffering so much. Everything we do now, and anything we do in the future, will be in honor of Kayla — the reason we started our work in the first place.”

If you would like to purchase or sponsor a ZipTee for someone in need, visit the ZipTee website at www.ziptee.org.

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