ICYMI: Toronto Life features Getwell Goods

After recovering from cancer twice, Geoff Church founded Getwell Goods, which sells customized kits of items to make hospital stays and recovery periods more comfortable“I spent lots of time in hospitals and realized that nobody knows what to buy for a sick person. So I started making my own hospital kits”

Geoff Church had cancer twice, which involved major surgeries and many rounds of chemotherapy. For his second go-around, he packed a bag of items to make his recovery more comfortable—and it made such a difference that he decided to launch his own brand of customized kits

For much of my life, I haven’t felt like a sick person. I’ve loved downhill skiing since I was a kid growing up in North York. As an adult, I’ve travelled to Mont Tremblant and Western Canada to hit the slopes with my partner, her two kids and my two kids, and I enjoy the sport more than most people I’ve met. I also love to draw and design things, and I merge the two in my day job as a packager. I design neat packages for products you’d buy at a store—toys, home items, electronics. I’ve done this work for decades, and I still love it. 

I’ve always enjoyed my life, but it was almost cut short. Just over ten years ago, when I was 39, I started having intermittent pains in my stomach. They were sometimes so severe that I’d visit the emergency room every few months. The doctors I saw never dove into the source of my pain, so I’d leave the hospital thinking I had just eaten something that didn’t agree with me. My mother occasionally had similar stomach aches and always blamed them on something she ate; I figured she had food sensitivities and I’d inherited them. 

On New Year’s Day in 2014, I started feeling really sick in the shower—and not because of a hangover. I have a high pain tolerance, and I could often ride it out for a few hours until it went away. But that day it was too intense to ignore—it felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach—so I went to the emergency room. The doctor I saw ordered a CT scan and asked me to stay overnight. Wanting to believe I just had a stomach bug, I hoped the doctor was overreacting—I had never had a CT scan before. I ended up staying at the hospital for two weeks as doctors ran me through a gamut of tests ranging from bloodwork to more scans and a full colonoscopy. I just wanted to go home and be with my kids, who were three and one at the time. 

A few days after being released from the hospital, I went to see a GI specialist. He sat me down and said, “You have colon cancer. I was in too much disbelief to process the news, besides which I was distracted: my car had been stolen three months earlier, and I had seen it on the street that morning on the way to the hospital. My mind was bouncing around between two things: I have to go get my car and How will I break the news to my family?

As the days passed, the dread of having cancer—and the urgency to start treatment—sunk in. Two weeks after my diagnosis, I underwent a major operation at Mount Sinai: the doctors made a foot-long incision in my abdomen and removed a baseball-size tumour from my colon. I couldn’t believe that nobody had caught it until now. When the pathology from the tumour and surrounding tissues came back, it was determined that I had Stage 3 cancer and that it was also in my lymph nodes, which meant I would need to undergo chemotherapy. After a difficult recovery from surgery, I started going to the hospital every two weeks for four-hour sessions that completely drained me. Chemo kills cancer cells, but it also feels like it’s bringing your body to the brink of death in the process. I did 12 rounds in total, which took me away from work for a full year. 

The chemo worked, and I went into remission, but unbeknownst to me, I was still in the middle of the hardest period of my life. Two years later, in 2016, my mom’s stomach pains worsened, and a colonoscopy revealed that she also had colon cancer. Doctors caught it too late—Stage 4—and she passed away five months later. It was an incredibly tough time for me, but I had young children to focus on. They were my motivation to stay positive.

The years following my recovery and the loss of my mother brought change and personal growth: my marriage ended, I started running and going to the gym, and I began to feel a renewed appreciation for life. But, in 2018, just as I was getting used to sharing custody of my children and embracing my new lifestyle, my health took another downturn. I felt pain in my stomach again and hoped it was just an ulcer. It turned out to be Stage 2 cancer of the small bowel, and I needed another major surgery. I was devastated and filled with dread: I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cough, sneeze or laugh without pain after surgery. The idea of going back to the hospital and repeating the whole process was too much to bear.

I tried my best to stay optimistic—and to not look or act too sick in front of my kids—by telling myself, “Dig deep and push forward. I had two weeks to prepare for my surgery, so I went shopping for a few items that would make the six-month recovery period more manageable. I bought slippers that were way more comfortable than the ones at the hospitals, a water bottle to replace the flimsy Styrofoam cups, an eye mask to help me sleep better and ear plugs to block out the hospital noise. After my previous surgery, I’d shared a room with a man who screamed in agony at night, and it had somewhat traumatized me. 

With my bag of supplies ready, I went to the hospital and underwent a successful nine-hour surgery. As I recuperated, friends and family visited with gifts in tow. Some brought flowers, which was a nice gesture, but I had nowhere to put them and they died within three days. One friend brought me a chocolate bar and a Pepsi—he meant well, but it seemed like a weird gift for someone recovering from bowel surgery. He told me he’d had no clue what to get. That’s when I realized: nobody knows what to buy for a sick person. 

I returned home after two weeks with a six-month recovery leave from work and plenty of time to reflect. I couldn’t shake how fortunate I felt to have curated my own hospital bag filled with helpful items. I started thinking about gifts for sick people and wondering whether there was a market for useful hospital kits. I did some research, and when I didn’t find anything on Google or Amazon, my heart started racing in excitement. I thought, I know exactly what hospital patients need. I can create this.

I shared the idea with my friend Ken Fothergill, who is a creative director, and he loved it and wanted to get involved. At first, we bought a stack of the slippers I’d purchased for myself, but then we returned them all because they weren’t what we wanted. We wanted to create something customized, which meant diving into the world of research and manufacturing. Our goal was to create products designed specifically for recovery circumstances, inspired by my own experiences in hospitals: a blanket that can be used with an IV pole, a water bottle with lid options that allow you to drink while lying down, a zip-up pocket for personal items, as well as custom slippers, face masks, note pads, laundry bags, ear plugs and tote bags, all neatly packaged into kits.

After 16 months of planning, we launched Getwell Goods in 2021. We sell our kits on our website and in gift shops at Princess Margaret, Toronto General and Mount Sinai hospitals. Eventually, we may want to sell the kits at more locations, but hospitals seem like the best fit for now. It’s been amazing to see the company flourish: I went to Mount Sinai for a routine colonoscopy the other week, and I saw Getwell Goods kits in a display cabinet in the hospital’s foyer. It was such a rewarding, full-circle moment. 

Getwell Goods is a passion project, and I still have my day job in packaging. We’re doing this to help other people who are going through what I went through and to bring a bit of comfort and convenience to difficult days. We want loved ones to have a simple way of helping at a time when they feel helpless. I’m so grateful for the life I have now: I spend time with my friends and family; I run, ski and work on my business. Knowing that I can play even a tiny role in helping sick people persevere and get through a challenging time brings me so much happiness—I feel like I’ve finally found my purpose.

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