Hip to be Trach Chic

by Alyssa Quintero on November 1, 2005 - 10:01am

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 6

World-famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent once said, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.” He really knew what he was talking about, especially when it comes to the concept of trach chic.

Sharon Denson off the coast of the Atlantic ocean in West Hartford,  Conn.
Sharon Denson off the coast of the Atlantic ocean in West Hartford, Conn.

Trach chic is the idea that a person’s sense of style endures long after a tracheostomy. People with neuromuscular diseases who’ve had this procedure to provide long-term breathing assistance are finding some fun and creative ways to define their senses of style and to make their trachs a more natural part of their physical appearance.

For example, from the moment Sharon Denson had a trach inserted in 2003, her life changed — for the better. While her outward appearance changed, Denson embraced the idea of trach chic, using scarves of various colors, patterns and fabrics to cover the opening in her trachea and remain stylish at the same time.

“The scarf takes the trach out of the picture,” Denson said. “I’m just Sharon, not Sharon with a tube sticking out of her throat.”

Denson, a divorced mother of two, who attends law school and gives business lectures, was found to have myasthenia gravis five years ago.

For Denson, being stylish isn’t about being trendy or wearing the latest styles from the fashion magazines. It’s about creating a style all her own.

She explained, “Just because you have a trach, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be fashionable and stylish and out in the world.”

Eliminating insecurity

Sharon Denson
Sharon Denson

When Denson had her trach inserted two years ago, she was overly preoccupied with how other people might react to the trach. She admits that it took a few months to “get over being self-conscious.”

Denson, 56, of West Hartford, Conn., decided the key to eliminating the “trach factor” was to wear a scarf.

“When I wore my first scarf, I didn’t get any kind of reaction [to the trach],” she said. “I realized that people were looking at me, not the trach. Now, nobody knows it’s there unless I’ve told them I have a trach.

“With the scarves, it became fun to be fashionable and really dress up the trach at the same time,” she added.

Denson, who owns more than 40 scarves of all colors and styles, always matches her scarf to her outfit for the day. On the plus side, she credits the scarves with improving her fashion sense and helping her look more sophisticated, distinguished and professional.

“People always tell me, ‘That’s a really pretty scarf,’ and they only see the scarf, not the trach underneath.”

Denson, who wears a scarf almost all of the time, equates herself to an artist because she implements scarves into her wardrobe, adding color and flair to her outfit and attitude.

“The scarves really allow someone to express who she is, and I have taken that and run with it.”

The wonderful world of scarves

In Rocky Hill, Conn., Marybeth Waltman has worked as a claims representative for the Hartford Social Security Office for nearly 23 years. Waltman, who has spinal muscular atrophy, had a tracheostomy in 1996.

Sharon Denson and Marybeth Waltman
Sharon Denson and Marybeth Waltman

For Waltman, 45, the trach wasn’t a “big deal.” Following her surgery, she decided that “people looking at my neck wouldn’t even see the trach once they saw my smile.”

Nevertheless, like Denson, she was worried that her trach would upset other people, so she started wearing scarves to cover the trach a few months after the surgery.

Waltman, who owns 200 to 250 scarves in all colors, styles and for all occasions, takes wearing scarves a step farther. Every day, she coordinates her scarf with her outfit — and with her service dog Sable’s leash and collar. Sable wears a different collar every day, and has 75 sets of matching collars and leashes.

An avid shopper, Waltman also takes pride in the fact that she has a scarf for every holiday, from St. Patrick’s Day and Easter to Halloween and Christmas.

“I just like putting on scarves,” Waltman said. “The scarves just finish off the whole look, and the colors really add a lot to my wardrobe.”

Similar to Denson’s experience, Waltman explained that most people notice the beauty of her scarves, and they don’t realize that she has a trach. In order to cover the trach completely, Waltman folds the scarf, wraps it around her neck and ties it in the back.

Sharon Denson and Jim Coulter
Sharon Denson and Jim Coulter

Princess Peggy Lee

Mary Gallo, who has congenital muscular dystrophy, found an artistic and literary way to express a tale about a woman, her trach and a scarf.

Gallo, 35, wrote a poem called “Princess Peggy Lee with a Tracheostomy.” In the poem, the princess receives an invitation to the ball. For the occasion, she chooses a lilac gown and mauve shoes to match her purple power wheelchair.

The princess, however, has a dilemma because she’s not quite sure how to hide the blue hose from her ventilator. She finds a plum-colored satin scarf with beads to add to her ensemble. She wraps the scarf around her neck, and off to the ball she goes!

As in her fictional poem, Gallo., of Lindenhurst, N.Y., wears scarves around her neck primarily when she attends parties or other special events. She usually cuts excess material from the bottom of her dresses, and uses it to make a scarf or choker to coordinate with her ensemble.

Gallo, who has 20 scarves, said, “Having the trach is really not a big deal. Sometimes people can tell, but most other times they can’t.”

Gallo enjoys dressing up the scarves with rhinestone chokers that she buys at flea markets. But, most of the time, she doesn’t even worry about covering the trach.

Fashion is fun

In trying to be stylish and fashionable, men with trachs also have options when it comes to dressing up. Denson recommends turtlenecks or ascots and suggests that men can wear button-down dress shirts with an ascot for a more formal, sophisticated look.

MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Mattie J.T. Stepanek enjoyed wearing colorful neckties to “dress up” his trach. He also tied a ribbon matching his shirt to his trach tube, which became part of his signature style.

Denson also advises women to tie ribbons on the trach tube and decorate the ribbons with glitter because “it’s an easy way to add a little sparkle.

If you have a trach, there are many fun and inexpensive ways to add a little pizzazz to your wardrobe and a boost to your self-confidence. And, while fashions fade and change over time, your personal style is one way to make a statement, telling everyone that you are hip to be … trach chic.

Denson added, “Wearing a scarf allows me to make a fashion statement, and it makes a big difference in terms of improving my self-esteem. Simply putting on a scarf gives me that much more confidence.”

Princess Peggy Lee

"Come one. Come all.
To the Kingdom's ball!"
Cried a squire named McGuire
as he recited the King's request
to the court's council and the rest.

"It stars at eight, so don't be late!
No frocks or pinafores if you please
and no cocktail dresses above the knees. Only the finest taffeta, silk and lace,
should greet her royal, fair Queen Grace."

"A ball tonight!" cried Princess Peggy Lee.
Princess Peggy Lee with a tracheostomy.
"A lilac gown I shall wear,
to accent my purple power chair!
And with mauve shoes upon my feet
my festive ensemble shall be complete!"

"Now, whatever shall I see or do,
to hide my ventilator's hose of blue?" Pondered Princess Peggy Lee.
Princess Peggy Lee with a tracheostomy.

She rolled over to a lavish dresser drawer.
A dresser drawer filled with scarves galore. She weeded through the wools and tweeds,
till she found a plum, satin scarf with beads. "Oh! This shall take care of and see to!
It shall hide my ventilator's hose of blue!" Exclaimed Princess Peggy Lee.
Princess Peggy Lee with a tracheostomy.

She twisted the plum scarf around her neck, then rolled to the mirror for one last check, before proceeding to the party room,
where the band was whaling a roaring boom!

She danced all night to the band's trombone.
Sliding and gliding upon her aerated throne. A ball was had by Princess Peggy Lee.
Princess Peggy Lee with a tracheostomy.

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