By Vicki Hillhouse
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.
It had been six months since the mastectomy when the woman came to Darcey Benzel’s M-Powered for help.
“Do you have another one of these?” she asked holding up a misshapen fiberfill breast form.
Months of wear on what was intended as a temporary fix when she left the hospital had left the piece in a sorry state. But exploring women’s wear was hardly at the top of the list of things to do after an illness that one is simply trying to survive. This new place where a bra only fits on one side was foreign, and she hardly knew where to start.
“I think we can do even better than that,” Benzel told her, turning to a wall of boxes holding Anita silicone forms.
It was a day that changed everything. A day that goes down as being what M-Powered is all about: restoring strength and femininity.
One week later, the woman came back for a bathing suit.
If there’s an experience that remotely compares it might have been the first time Benzel helped change a life by equipping a customer with a new walker.
“It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Benzel, who also owns Green & Jackson Medical.
Benzel’s latest venture, which so far has been a by-appointment operation until a spring grand opening, pays tribute to her mom, a breast and uterine cancer survivor, while also filling a need for services in the community.
There are three meanings to the “M” in M-Powered.
One is mastectomy. One is maternity. The final is massage.
Benzel has quietly opened the operation at 1365 Dalles Military Road in a building that long ago served as a restaurant and more recently was the site of the AAA motor club office.
But truth be told, there’s another “M” word that’s revving the engine on this business — Medicare. At least that’s part of it, she said during a recent tour of the shop.
Increasing audits from government and other insurance to catch occurrences of medical fraud have made huge strides in reducing improprieties, she said. But they also raise flags on people who aren’t trying to bilk the system.
That means for some folks who don’t understand all the paperwork or all the processes in the varying levels of bureaucracy, things that should be covered aren’t. It also means medical supply companies don’t get the compensation they’re due either.
Expanding from Green & Jackson — located just across the parking lot in a separate building — with an over-the-counter retail model for another type of medical supply service is a matter of business life or death.
“The truth of the matter is if we don’t diversify we die,” Benzel said.
The retail portion, accessible through the left entry to the building, is a 50/50 split of maternity and mastectomy items.
For mothers-to-be there are specialty pillows, breast pumps, pregnancy garments and care packages.
For the mastectomy side, there are prosthetics, bras and clothing.
The shop also offers professional massage from Benzel’s massage practitioner daughter, Kristen Benzel.
The combination of items is just another step in an evolution for Benzel with the historic Green & Jackson.
Started as a pharmacy even before penicillin was commonly used, Green & Jackson Drug Co. was a Walla Walla institution. It was the oldest pharmacy in the state, started in 1872 on what was then a dirt road called Main Street when Washington was still a U.S. territory.
Some of the bottles of the time were still on display in 1999, when the business shifted from a pharmacy to a medical supply company.
Benzel started working for the company in 1994, and became its owner in 2002. She experienced the transition from pharmacy to medical supplies.
And when regulations required her to move off Main Street — record-keeping, equipment cleaning and parking were among the issues with the downtown spot — a heartbroken Benzel acquiesced.
Benzel has worked to comply with the many requirements of running such a business, but now faces new challenges with changing health care operations.
She rented one side of Green & Jackson’s current setup for records. She’s got billing on the opposite side of M-Powered in a completely different building.
To some who pass by, it may look like a well-financed complex. But Benzel said it’s all she can do to keep up with the changing face of health care and its many regulations.
The newest piece of the puzzle utilizes her skills as a professional fitter and offers a service in the community that may be otherwise limited.
Meanwhile, the retail spot has been a pay-as-she-goes prospect, slowly growing into regular hours and still waiting for its own phone system installation.
When it falls into place, she believes it will be a business that’s both vital for her own operation’s survival as well as the vitality of women in the community.
“We think we have the concept,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”