Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meet Chris Mustakas of Gastrotees

Chris Mustakas started Gastrotees to support his sister Maria who has a rare illness called Gastroparesis. The business is their way to raise awareness for people who are struggling with chronic GI issues like GP, Crohn's and Colitis, IBS, Gastric Cancer, Digestive Tract Paralysis (DTP), gallbladder issues, and more.

Maria has been sick for many years but doesn't really look sick. Their hope with Gastrotees is that their t-shirts will help create awareness, break stereotypes, and challenge people's comfort zones. They want people to understand. They're always coming up with new ways of expressing themselves with new designs, and they're always willing to work with people who have ideas for a shirt or a cause.

Every month Gastrotees will support different gastrointestinal charities or groups and a minimum of $5 from every t-shirt sold will be donated directly to those charities. This month, they are donating $10 from one shirt to G-PACT.

1. How did you first get the idea to start designing and selling t-shirts to raise awareness about gastrointestinal illnesses?

I can't really explain how I got the idea to start designing and selling t-shirts to raise awareness about gastrointestinal illnesses without briefly explaining how I had to learn all about a gastrointestinal illness in the first place...I hope that's OK!

Gastrotees is an apparel company that I (Chris Mustakas) founded to help my sister Maria deal with a rare and devastating gastrointestinal disease. You see, I am now living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada with my wife and daughter while Maria lives in Kitchener with her husband.  

In August 2007, Maria became quite ill and started vomiting after every meal, for no apparent reason. Her health and weight continued to decline, and after many doctor appointments and tests she was diagnosed with idiopathic gastroparesis which literally means paralyzed (or weakened) stomach.

After trying numerous medications, it was deemed necessary to have her first feeding tube placed in November 2008. Maria struggled for years with her feeding tubes. She couldn't tolerate the feeds and constantly had infections. In May of 2011, she met a doctor in Quebec whose specialty was to surgically place a gastric pacemaker in the stomach lining. The procedure seemed very risky, but our hope was that it would help make her stomach work properly again. Unfortunately it was not successful, and her health and weight continued to decline. Finally in June of 2012, after much debate, Maria decided to try one more surgery, one more effort to get her life back. This time, she had her entire stomach removed. Now her esophagus is attached to her small intestines. Although she is able to eat small amounts, she still relies desperately on TPN for her daily nutrients.

All this to say, living five hours away, I've had a difficult time dealing with my sister's health. I have found it very difficult to hear stories, get text updates from Maria while she was at the hospital ER, or finding out from my parents that she wasn't doing well. I can't even begin to imagine what she is going through.

In October of 2014, I started another graphic t-shirt design company called The Envy of Your Friends and began selling my designs online. I guess I had modest success with "Envy" but quickly came to realize that most of my design themes were all over the map in terms of my ideas, and many people said I needed to come up with more gender-neutral shirt ideas. One of my friends said that the market for the type of shirts I was designing was pretty saturated, and he actually told me to focus on a niche market where I could make more of an impact.

In December of 2014, I approached Maria with an idea: to create a graphic t-shirt company that helped support Maria and her struggles with chronic illness. While there were a few organizations that sold shirts there wasn't, to my knowledge, a company out there who was exclusively focusing on gastrointestinal illnesses.

In my spare time (because I have another job outside of this), I design all of the shirts for Gastrotees with Maria's input.

2. Your shirts strike balance between being funny and being informative. How do you come up with the design ideas for your tees? 

I try to take Maria's stories, experiences, feelings, hopes, and fears and express them in a graphic way. I am not a graphic designer by trade or education, so I can't really do overly complex designs! However, our Gastrotees are based largely on life experience, mostly Maria's life experiences to be honest. We look for fun and sometimes funny ways of expressing common feelings associated with being chronically ill. We try not to be totally exclusive in the message of the shirts as we like to offer our shirts to a wider audience.

For example, my sister always had a saying "I'm so sick and tired of being sick and tired," so I made a pillow with that saying on it. She also has gone to the doctor's office or hospital emergency room so many times for the same issues that she feels like she is a "doctor without a degree," so I made that into a t-shirt. Maria is without a stomach, so she is gutless, and that was the inspiration for one of our first designs. As a kid, I was a fan of GI Joe and made a shirt that is inspired by the GI Joe logo and it says GI Tract, because everyone who has a chronic illness is a fighter.

My sister also hooks up to an IV bag called TPN every night to feed and get the necessary calories, so I made a shirt that says "Pole Dancer" with an IV pole. I also want to make one that says "Just because I feed at night doesn't make me a vampire." If we can make someone smile with our designs and sayings, then we are doing our job!

3. Who have you found your customers to be so far? (I'm picturing gastroenterologists wearing these tees, as well as gastro patients wearing them!)

Well it's tough because we just launched on February 1st and at the time of this interview, we were a week into it. All that being said, we've seen some moderate sales of our t-shirts, and the popular items include the Gastro Glossary (which is a t-shirt with a bunch of words that relate to chronic GI illnesses), a shirt that has a water bottle on the belly (because a hot water bottle gives Maria a lot of comfort when she isn't feeling well), and a shirt that says "No Guts, All Glory." All that being said, we have sold our t-shirts largely to family and friends wanting an outlet to show their support for the challenges for the chronically ill.

Moving forward our shirts will hopefully touch the heart strings of current GI patients and their supporters, but also hopefully practitioners like nurses, receptionists, and personal support workers. Our designs are meant to challenge stereotypes at times, and hopefully open the lines of communication. We want people to wear our shirts with pride and help others understand.

It's funny, when Maria and I first started talking about this company, we both independently dreamed that we were invited to the Ellen Degeneres show and that our appearance really helped bring gastrointestinal illnesses to the mainstream, and helped recognize Gastroparesis as a disability by the Social Security Administration in the United States. Ya never know what could happen; I just think that's pretty cool that we both dreamed that. OK, it's out there...let's hope it happens!

4. What are some of the charities/groups you hope to raise money for with your products?

A minimum of $5 from every item we sell at is donated directly to a charity, cause, organization, or group related to a specific GI illness. Maria and I wanted to support Gastroparesis awareness for our first cause, and we have made G-PACT our first benefactor. Every month we will also design an exclusive t-shirt for the cause we are supporting, and $10 from every t-shirt sold with that design that month we will donate directly to the cause. We designed The Gastro Grandprix shirt to help visually explain that people suffering from Gastroparesis' stomachs are super slow like a turtle. Very little passes through from the stomach into the intestines because everything is going at a turtle's pace. All the other food wants to go through, but it can't.

On our website, we have listed the causes we would like to support over the next two years. They range from generating awareness for Crohn's and Colitis, Celiac Disease, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), and Feeding Tubes. We have not decided on the actual charities, groups, or associations to support as we hope that people representing those organizations will approach us to help them. We want to support groups and charities in both Canada and the US. We would also welcome charities, groups, or organizations approaching us with a campaign idea, and we'd design the shirts, produce, and sell them raising money towards the cause. We are open to a whole bunch of things and hope that this idea/concept is well received. We are doing this largely to show that we care, and to create #GIAwareness!

5. What would you most like people to know/understand so that they might be more understanding about individuals who have chronic GI issues?

Maria and I want more people to become aware of invisible diseases, to understand that what people go through is not just a "tummy ache," and they are not making this up. It sometimes seems hard to believe that someone can go through so much and still have the will to keep going. Unfortunately, their struggles are real and debilitating. 

We're always willing to collaborate with people who have ideas for a shirt or a cause, whether that's in t-shirt, snapback hat, sweatshirt, or hoodie form. We want people to know that we want to raise money for different gastrointestinal charities or groups by donating a minimum of $5 from everything we sell on our site, and $10 from our special Gastrotee of the Month.

We want people to get in touch with us, either to see if we can work together, raise money for their cause, or just to say, hey, I am going through something as well. We are trying to grow our Facebook following at and we are trying to build a twitter following @gastrotees to help spread #GIAwareness

Unfortunately, what Maria and others go through is very real, tough, costly, and scary. My sister has been going through this illness and its complications for seven years now, and she's only 29....ask yourself what you were doing in your prime 20s, and just think of how difficult that would be if you were sick and tired all the time, not able to do the things you love. I guess I am just asking people to consider others and be kind out there. Together we can help people understand that just because I don't look sick doesn't mean I'm not sick, or slowly starving to death.

Thanks, Chris!

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