By Claudia Buck
The Sacramento Bee.
Battling cancer — four times in nine surgeries — didn’t turn Cinde Dolphin brittle or resentful. Nor did getting laid off three times from corporate jobs set her back.
Instead, her resilience has taken her on an unexpected odyssey that started in a remote African village and landed her in the world of small-business owners. It started more than 20 years ago when she was hit with a cancerous lung tumor, while working for Coors as a marketing manager, followed by another 16 years battling back against three different bouts with breast cancer.
Somewhere in that grueling reality, she found a way to start over. The result is a fledgling company with a simple product that brings huge comfort to surgery patients.
“In an odd way, (cancer and layoffs) were a great opportunity to get off the merry-go-round. I did not want to go back into the big-business world,” said Dolphin, 62, whose first round of breast cancer surgery was in 1999. “I knew there’s something I can do that can make a difference, a business that I feel good about.”
That business — Kili Medical Drain Carrier — is something that only a cancer patient can completely appreciate.
Dreading the drains
After seven separate surgeries involving breast cancer, Dolphin knew the grueling aftermath all too well. Like many breast cancer patients, she’d be sent home with tubes and plastic drainage bottles, sutured to her wounds and safety-pinned to her clothes, to siphon off blood and other post-surgery fluids.
The drains are yet another added aggravation to an already disconcerting diagnosis. Tethered to the bags 24-7 for up to three weeks at a time, many patients find sleeping difficult, showering almost impossible and everyday tasks such as driving to the store or cooking dinner more complicated. And there’s the constant risk of accidentally ripping the drains from their stitches.
“It’s so traumatic coming out of (surgery). But no one had ever told me there were drainage bags,” said Dolphin, a petite, upbeat woman, who looks far younger than her years.
“Surgeons do extraordinary work,” said Dolphin, “but they don’t see the frustration and trauma of going home after surgery.”
In March 2014, when Dolphin entered UC Davis for another breast reconstruction surgery, she came prepared, bringing with her a canvas apron, like those used by restaurant wait staffers. During a week in the hospital, she kept it tied around her waist with her four drainage bags safely tucked into the apron’s pockets.
Inspired by the positive reaction of the UCD nursing staff, she decided to make her own. Dolphin bought a white, zippered mesh bag, the kind used to wash lingerie, at a Dollar Tree store. She trimmed it with colorful bias tape and long strings that tie around the waist like an apron. From that simple prototype, the Kili Medical Drain Carrier was born.
Named after her post-cancer surgery trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013, it’s now been adopted by breast cancer nurses at some local hospitals — UC Davis, Sutter Health and Dignity Health.
Better than safety pins
Since May, about 30 Sutter Cancer Center patients have been sent home with Kili carriers, said Mary Pare, a breast cancer “navigator” who helps women with their pre- and post-surgery issues. She said the Kili carriers are a vast improvement over the safety pins handed out to patients going home with drains 15 years ago or the more recent use of terry-cloth carriers, which are bulky, unsightly and get “sopping wet” in the shower.
“Drains are scary to people. They’re a nuisance,” said Pare, who said patients often accidentally ripped out the sutures on their drainage lines when they were changing clothes or working in the kitchen. And showering often requires patients to loop a shoelace, lanyard or ribbon around their neck to keep the drains suspended.
“For years, we safety-pinned them to patients’ clothes. It worked, but ‘good enough’ isn’t good,” Pare said. “Having something where it’s right in front, something you can hide under a T-shirt,” is welcome.
Another Sacramento nurse navigator, Vanessa Borough of Dignity Health, said she’s become a huge fan of the Kili carriers for her breast cancer patients.
“It’s a little archaic to expect patients to pin a drain to the inside of their shirts,” said Borough, who added that feedback from Dignity Health patients using a Kili carrier has been positive. “It’s user-friendly and it’s putting the patient first.”
For cancer patients, they can help the transition back to normalcy. “Drains are a drag, literally and figuratively,” said Sacramento breast cancer survivor Lori Martin, who bought a Kili carrier online before her double-mastectomy surgery at UC Davis in March. Martin, who went home with four drains that stayed in for weeks, calls them “appendages that are very unnatural. They serve a useful function, but they’re just plain old uncomfortable.”
Martin, 53, co-owner of travel planning company Experience Italy, said the Kili carrier made “a difficult time less stressful,” enabling her to discreetly tuck in her drains and feel more confident when taking neighborhood walks, shopping at the grocery store and going to work.
Two years ago, needing to clear her head after another breast cancer bout, Dolphin volunteered in Karanga, Tanzania, where she helped women villagers who’d formed a small business micro-loan group to learn English and sun-dry vegetables for sales to hikers and locals. She also spent several days hiking 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.
On a return trip to the same village last November, Dolphin collaborated with the women to produce a colorful, fabric version of her Kili medical aprons. Now made by two groups of women in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, the Kilimanjaro Carriers are sewn out of native fabrics in vivid oranges, blues and greens. The finished bags are sent 30 to 40 at a time to Dolphin, who stitches on the tiny Kili labels at her East Sacramento dining table. For each bag delivered, the Tanzania women earn $6, a generous income in a country where domestic workers can earn less than $3 a day.
Unlike the medical drain carriers, the African-made versions are intended for teachers, gardeners, artists, pet owners and others who need extra pockets. The villagers recently obtained hard-to-find pink patterned fabric for aprons honoring breast cancer survivors. The Kili aprons are sold online and in a few Sacramento shops, including the Yolo SPCA and the Piece of Mind bead shop in Sacramento.
For now, Dolphin is self-funding the project out of her retirement money. Unable to find a low-cost U.S. manufacturer, she has the medical drain bags produced in China and sells them online to individuals for $15 or at bulk rates to hospitals.
Since starting in November, Dolphin says she’s sold about 225 medical carriers to hospitals and another 30 to individuals. About 85 of the arty, African versions, which sell for $22, have been purchased online or in local gift shops.
With a provisional patent on her design, Dolphin has contacted potential investors and medical drain manufacturers to see if they’re interested in helping expand sales.
“It’s not a high-tech solution. It’s not sexy or exciting,” said Dolphin, who also works as marketing director for Story Winery in the Amador County foothills.
After President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Kenya, Dolphin sent a letter with a Kili carrier to first lady Michelle Obama. “Perhaps you can share this story with your husband,” she wrote, “and how we are empowering women in rural areas of East Africa.”
For Dolphin, her quest to get Kili bags into the hands of more women dealing with breast cancer is part of her long-term recovery.
“I’ve been lucky to get through this,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to do something that’s the opposite of self-pity: What can I do to make it better for people behind me? It’s a way to pay it forward.”