WEST PITTSTON — When Maria Jiunta Heck took that first car ride after her mastectomy in 2009, she grimaced and held the shoulder harness away from her body.
The hospital had given her a pillow, but it didn’t really help.
To ride without a restraint and risk being injured in a fender bender didn’t seem like a good option. But riding legally, with the belt adding to her discomfort, was not ideal either.
“I don’t do well with pain,” admitted Heck, a librarian and writer whose column appears every other Thursday in the Times Leader. In the self-deprecating style her readers know well, she added, “I’m a whiner.”
But she wasn’t content to complain. Heck created a product that evolved into The Breast and Chest Buddy and started a company, Green Gables Enterprises, that has sold thousands of the patented “seat belt enclosures,” which she designed with comfort in mind.
“I’m looking at my numbers. We’re pushing 25,000,” Heck said on Thursday. “We’re averaging about 100 to 125 a week.”
One of Heck’s Breast Buddies went to Ruth Smith, formerly of Wyoming Valley, who now lives in Columbia, Mo.
“After my operation — I had a double mastectomy — it was a godsend,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “After I healed I didn’t use it that much but when I had radiation I needed it again. I had third-degree burns. Then I healed from that but I got my port taken out so I needed it a third time.”
“I couldn’t have gone through this without it,” Smith said. “I gave one to my friend who was using a pillow and she said, with the pillow she was always hot, but not with the Breast Buddy. It was a godsend for her, too. She used it forever.”
Another satisfied customer, Kim Middleton, of West Pittston, didn’t have cancer but found the Breast Buddy useful after reduction surgery.
“It not only provided comfort physically, where my incisions were, but it provided peace of mind,” Middleton said. “I have two children and I was able to resume my usual activities days later, because I had that. If I didn’t, I would have been hesitant to be driving around.”
While the original Breast Buddy was designed for women who had breast surgery, Heck learned through comments on the Etsy.com web site that some women were buying them for husbands who had open-heart surgery. So Heck began to label another version of her product as a Chest Buddy, decorated with a tiny heart logo instead of the breast cancer ribbon.
She also offers a Tummie Buddy now, for people who have had abdominal surgery, and the Bear Hug Buddy, which is for children in a booster seat who mind find the seat belt uncomfortable.
“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me” to know people who use the Buddies are feeling more comfortable, Heck said. “I don’t want anyone to have to use a tiny pillow and endure that discomfort.”
The Breast and Chest Buddy retails for $19.99 to $24.99 and can be ordered through Etsy.com, amazon.com and walmart.com.
The products are made by seamstresses in the Allentown area, Heck said, and her father, Patrick Jiunta, a retired pharmacist who is almost 93 years old, works on the labels for her.
“He sits on the couch and watches the Mets or he watches a movie and he pumps out the labels,” she said. “He likes having something to do, so it’s win-win. My brother David, who’s a teacher, will help him. We loop grosgrain ribbons through holes that are punched in the label, and my husband, Anthony, tags and bags them.”
”I couldn’t do it without them,” she said of her family members.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT