NORTHFIELD CENTER: When Deb Stanzak’s brother complained about feeling cold during dialysis treatments as he battled kidney failure, she knew she had to do something to help.
Even on the coldest winter days, Ron Papes was forced to wear short-sleeved shirts so the doctors and nurses at the dialysis center could connect his port.
“How can I fix this?” Stanzak asked herself after sitting with him through a treatment.
So she used her years of experience sewing and working as a manager and buyer in the retail industry to craft a fleece pullover with a zipper for easy port access.
“Everybody loves these,” her brother told her. “People need these.”
What started as a handmade gift to help her dying brother has turned into a growing business named in his honor.
RonWear Port-able Clothing sells stain-resistant, anti-microbial cotton jackets and pants that resemble jogging suits but contain hidden zippers to allow discreet access to ports for patients undergoing dialysis, chemotherapy, infusions or transfusions.
“The universal need was warmth, dignity and easy access to the port area,” said Stanzak, who runs the business out of her home in Northfield Center.
Stanzak began selling the products online through her business’ website — www.ronwear.com — in 2010.
Last year, she expanded to offer products at hospital gift shops and dialysis centers as well as directly to consumers.
The jacket, featuring four zippers on the arms and chest, retails for $69 and is available in blue and gray. Matching pants also are sold for $39 without zippers or $59 for patients who need zippers to access the femoral artery in the legs.
For years, Stanzak wanted to own a clothing business. But her dreams were put on hold as she helped her brother, who died in 2005, and her husband, Gary, whose seven-year battle with cancer ended when he died in 2008.
Before he died, her brother made her promise to eventually start a business to sell clothing items like the one she made for him so other patients could benefit.
While caring for her brother and husband, as well as her ailing mother and in-laws, Stanzak saw firsthand how comfortable clothing with easier access to ports and IVs would benefit patients.
“Seven years of caregiving allowed me to learn what patients needed in treatment,” she said.
In 2008, she finally pulled the jacket she had made for her brother out of her closet and began researching her idea to design and sell “treatmentwear.”
In August 2010, RonWear Port-able Clothing was born.
The company then got a much-needed financial boost in August 2012, when Stanzak won a $250,000 grant from Chase in a national small-business contest that attracted about 70,000 entries. Before the grant, Stanzak had been struggling to keep the company funded primarily on her own.
Entrees were evaluated based on the feasibility of their growth plan, creativity, overall passion for business and potential to make a positive impact in their community.
“It was quite a miracle,” she said.
Stanzak uses a Chinese company to manufacturer the products. RonWear contracts with a Beachwood company to fulfill orders.
Stanzak declined to release sales figures, but she said the company is moving toward profitability as its market expands to include overseas sales.
“We are going in the right direction,” she said. “People are becoming more aware of RonWear.”
Johnna O’Neal, 46, of Akron, is among RonWear’s satisfied customers.
She ordered a jacket online late last year while feeling uncomfortably cold during a regular four-hour infusion treatment for Crohn’s disease.
The jacket allows her to stay covered and warm while her blood pressure is monitored through one opening and her IV treatment is delivered through the other.
“I wore it for the first time in December and it was awesome,” she said. “I stayed so much warmer than before.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.