For years, Gail Ropel did cardiac ultrasounds to help doctors target treatments for breast cancer patients without damaging their hearts.
But the image on the screen wasn't her only look into the women's hearts. In a dimly lit room, surrounded by medical equipment, patients would open up and talk about their fears of the disease and the treatment.
Gail Ropel, 53; Amy Sorensen, 24; Terry Philby, 52.
Job description: Hands-on evaluation of fabric and flesh to make sure bras really fit, especially for hard-to-fit women and post-mastectomy patients at The Comfort Zone Boutique.
Salary: Up to $25,000 annually at boutiques in urban areas, less locally.
Education and experience: Ropel has a medical background, training from manufacturers and is certified by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics. She has owned The Comfort Zone Boutique in Medford's Black Oak Shopping Center for two years.
Sorensen has a degree in apparel design and merchandising from Oregon State University and two years' experience as a bra fitter. She said this is her dream job because it lets her work in the field her degree is in and make a difference for women.
Philby has been a hairdresser for 25 years and a bra and mastectomy fitter for 15 years, after training with manufacturers. She said being a hairdresser was all she ever wanted to do, until she started fitting bras for cancer patients; now she can't imagine giving up either of her jobs.
"It was just me and them in a dark room, and they would talk," Ropel said. "I saw the need to do something more for them."
She decided to train in fitting women with post-mastectomy breast prostheses and accompanying bras, and opened The Comfort Zone Boutique two years ago.
While the Medford shop specializes in products for breast cancer patients and hard-to-find sizes, it offers a wide variety of bras with band sizes from 28 to 56 and cup sizes from AA to JJ. It has nursing bras, post-surgical wear for patients who have had breast reductions or augmentations as well as cancer surgery, shapewear, pajamas designed to alleviate the night sweats of menopause, and skin care items and accessories for chemotherapy patients.
Ropel and her two employees strive to make it a welcoming place that's not all about medical supplies and industrial-strength support garments.
"I wanted it to be just about shopping, something you could do with friends," she said.
Ropel and her staff, Terry Philby and Amy Sorensen, are happy to offer friendly advice based on their expertise and experience.
"Between the three of us, I think we've covered all the issues people can have," Ropel said with a laugh.
She is certified as a mastectomy fitter by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics, having completed training seminars offered by mastectomy product manufacturers, 500 hours of fitting and a written test.
Sorensen has a degree in apparel design and merchandising from Oregon State University and her mother is a breast cancer survivor.
Philby, a hairdresser who was drawn to help with cancer patients after working in a wig salon at a hospital, has 15 years' experience as a mastectomy fitter. She is a six-year survivor of breast cancer who has had a breast reconstruction.
"I'm able to walk them through the whole treatment and what to expect," she said.
Philby said she understands how "mentally destructive" it is to lose a body part that feels like an integral part of one's identity as a woman and she's willing to share her story. She's even let women worried about a mastectomy or considering reconstruction see her reconstructed breast.
"I call it my teaching breast," she said.
"We're always flashing someone," Ropel said, explaining that a demonstration is often the best way to teach someone how a bra is supposed to fit.
They also follow customers into the fitting room to see how fabric, underwires and flesh come together in a fit that will make a woman look and feel her best.
"You have to let us look, so we can see where the wire lands and where the straps go," Sorensen said.
A commonly cited statistic from a 2005 study by bra manufacturer Wacoal claims that eight out of 10 women wear the wrong size bra. Many women also wear the same bra size throughout their lives, despite clear changes to bodies over time, the fitters said.
"Life happens," Ropel said. "Things change."
The fitters said the most common problem they see is women wearing a bra that has too large a band size and too small a cup. While the band size is a measurement in inches, the cup size represents a ratio of rib cage to bust measurements, so a C cup isn't the same in each band size, never mind the variations between styles or brands.
"My sister-in-law told me she was a 38DD, but when I sent her some bras, she complained they were too small," Ropel said. "I got her in here and she was a 36K. All of a sudden, her breasts were up and she was like, 'Wow.'"
That "wow" moment is the best part, said the fitters, who each had stories of making a difference — altering a bra so a buxom bride could wear the halter-top-style gown she dreamed of, proving to a young woman that a large, supportive bra can still be pretty and sexy, providing a comfortable nursing bra to a new mother who was hunched over with the weight of her lactating breasts.
"We have women leaving in tears they are so happy," Sorensen said. "They walk out in the same outfit, but they look taller and slimmer."
With an understanding of the shape and function of the body and a knowledge of fabrics and design, a good bra fitter isn't just a sales clerk with a measuring tape and training from a marketing seminar, Ropel said.
"This is a profession," she said.
"And it's really emotionally rewarding," Sorensen said. "We have fun with clients."