Maureen Lutz of Ridgefield, Connecticut, turned the befuddlement following her mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries into a headstrong determination to change the experience for future patients. She created the Necessities Bag shortly after her March 2005 surgery, and it has since gained widespread popularity.
“I should have had a little more practical insight about my recovery,” Maureen explains, adding that doctors and nurses provide the medical information, but often neglect the pragmatic side of preparation and recovery. “Had I understood more about how to care for myself, I wouldn’t have felt so devastated.”
Within a week after her surgery, she suggested to her surgeon that he could do more for his patents. He agreed. She went on to formalize her idea using the notes she wrote during her recovery and produced the prototype within three months. That was July 2005. She then established the Necessities Bag as a non-profit organization.
The bag contents have not changed since she created the first one. The simple tote contains practical products women need immediately following breast cancer surgery. Women receive the bag at their pre-operation appointment. Maureen specifically wanted patients to receive the Necessities Bag from their surgeon or surgical nurse so as to include the medical professionals in the conversation about recovery.
“The bag makes it real,” she said. “This is show and ask.You ask questions you never would have thought of.”
Maureen included items she found necessary, but lacked during her recovery, items like sleeveless cotton undershirts, lip balm, bandages, and a small pillow. The Necessities Bag also contains a pamphlet she wrote entitled, The Woman to Woman Guide to Prepare for Mastectomy.
Everything is very basic and simple. There are no extra frills just for the sake of adding frills. The soft handmade pillows, for instance, ease arm soreness post-surgery. A pillow, put between the chest and underarm, adds general comfort and reduces irritation when wearing a seatbelt. Sewing groups from Ridgefield, New Canaan, Greenwich, and West Hartford produce the 10-inch by 10-inch pillows. The pillows with ultra-soft clusters stuffing are covered in cotton fabric ranging from prints with butterflies and flowers to pinstripes and plaids. The pillows have become the bag’s signature piece.
“They’re all not the same, which is what I love about them.” Maureen continues to use a pillow under her arm when sleeping. “The pillows become very comforting and important, especially because they are hand made with loving care.”
What the Necessities Bag does not include is also critical. The tote remains free of sponsorship logos and the color pink. The plain white tote bears a small lavender-colored design. No pink is allowed. The sewing groups cannot use a pattern or fabric where pink is a dominant color, but shade is allowed as an accent color.
“Every time I turned around someone was giving me something pink,” Maureen explained. “I didn’t want to add more pink to their lives. It’s like a badge and some days you don’t want to wear the badge.”
The Necessities program has helped her personal recovery.
“A lot of women want to get on with their lives. For me, this meant sharing what happened to me. It got me through a really difficult year.”
She credits her surgeon, Darien-based Dr. David Passaretti for encouraging her. He was the first to offer the Necessities Bag to his patients. Word soon spread through word-of-mouth among nurses and patients. Annual distribution now covers over 1,000 mastectomy patients.
“It’s not because more women are having surgery, but more surgeons or nurses are hearing about it. The only surprising part is the number of women who still need the surgery,” Maureen said. “I almost wish we were out of business, but we are helping those who can’t wait for a cure.”
The bag and contents are paid for through donations or product contributions. Necessities volunteers deliver bags to doctors’ offices throughout Connecticut. There is also a limited distribution in New York and New Jersey.
Maureen started an affiliate program to bring Necessities to more women in response to inquiries that poured in from all over the country. The bag was created in a way that was easily replicated and it has not changed since she put together the first one nearly two years ago. Maureen’s only request is that affiliates promise not to alter the contents of bag and turn it into something it’s not supposed to be.
Necessities also does not print sponsors logos on the bag. Companies, groups and individuals that donate supplies or the $50-cost to produce the tote can have their name printed on a note card put inside the bag.
“The bag should not be about anything or anyone other than the recipient,” is Maureen’s mantra. “Losing your breasts is a very personal, private thing. It should not be about someone’s need to promote their product or service.”
As the former executive director of a children’s fund, Maureen had experience in the nonprofit field which helped with Necessities’ success.
“I was extremely motivated to really help other women have a better experience than I did in a way I could manage. I’m not a nurse,” she explains “I’m not a social worker, I’m an every-day woman. I had to follow through with what I started. The path was there in front of me. If I hadn’t, I would not have been true to myself. Women needed this piece that was missing.”
Edited from New Canaan News article by Kristiana Glavin, June 7, 2007