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Inventor at large

Soldotna woman finds way to make life more comfortable

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2001

Necessity, or a stiff neck, can be the mother of invention.

Two years ago, Kenai resident Esta Clemons had triple bypass surgery. While recovering, she often would doze off to sleep, sitting up in her chair.

"Those naps felt good as I was regaining my strength," she said.

But, oh, the side effects of napping in a chair.

 

With her dog Shad sitting in her lap and a Neck Napper in place, Clemons settles into a favorite chair for a moment of relaxation.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"My head would drop to one side," Clemons said. "I'd wake up half an hour or so later, with a painful neck."

A certified massage therapist, Clemons was aware of how positioning affects a person's muscles. She tried propping herself up with pillows, but they'd move out of place. So the invention process began.

"First, I made a long narrow pillow, like a tube," she said. "I'd wrap it around my neck and prop my head against one side. That still wasn't satisfactory to me. I kept changing the pattern until it became what I now call the Neck Napper.

"It's not meant to be a medical device," she said. "It's just a soft neck support."

Clemons worked as a nurse before coming to Alaska, an experience that also helped her when she designed her creation.

"I remember seeing patients in the hospital and nursing home, sitting with their heads slumped over. You know their neck was just killing them."

Clemons is now 67 and has retired from her therapy practice.

Getting aligned

Clemons moved to the Kenai Peninsula from Albany, N.Y., in 1973. Her twin sister, Vesta Leigh, had been living here since 1971.

"Our brother, Gus Clemons, was the first in the family to come to Alaska," Clemons said. "In the 1950s, he was a deep-sea diver, and he helped set up some of the platforms in Cook Inlet."

From 1973 to 1986, Clemons was living with her second husband and raising her four children in Kenai.

"I bought The Trophy Shop and had the business next door to my husband's glass shop. We were on the (Kenai) Spur Highway in North Kenai," Clemons said.

Her daughter, Cindy Hutchens, remembers Clemons' creative style of engraving trophies and plaques.

"I used to enjoy watching her at work. She's good at working with her hands and loves using tools," Hutchens said.

In 1987, after getting a divorce, Clemons moved to Snohomish, Wash., where some of her family was living.

"I worked for Net Link, a company that sold satellite dish programming," she said.

After living in Snohomish for a year, her company was moving to Denver and asking which employees would like to move with them.

"I'd never been to Denver, so I thought, 'That sounds good. I'll go.'"

At the office in Denver, Clemons sometimes gave neck and shoulder massages to her co-workers at their desks.

"One woman liked the massages so much, she said I should take a seminar on massage therapy. She thought I was in the wrong line of work, and I soon agreed with her."

Clemons went to the seminar -- and was glad she did.

"It got me started on becoming a therapist," she said.

"I liked the hands-on, one-to-one aspect of massage therapy. When I'd worked as nurse, I was too busy to have quality one-on-one time with a patient."

While she continued working for Net Link, in her spare time, Clemons was learning to rub people the right way.

"I had a thousand hours of therapy training and practice in Denver," she said.

Her twin sister, Vesta Leigh, visited Clemons in Denver.

"It was great to see her massage career taking shape," Leigh said. "She was so enthusiastic about becoming a therapist. It was like she was saying, 'Eureka! I've found it.'

"She was really good at it, because she enjoyed it."

A sister's bond

In 1992, Clemons moved back to Kenai and into a new cabin next to her twin sister's house. She also had a new job: Her own therapy practice.

"It was a little scary, sometimes not knowing if I was going to get enough clients that week, to keep up with the bills."

Hutchens said she admires her mother's courage.

"She's a risk taker. If she has something she wants to do, she'll do it," she said. "Mom has always been that way, like when she moved to Denver without knowing anyone there. I got to see Colorado because she was living there."

After being back in Kenai about a year, Clemons painted her cabin a pastel purple on the outside, and cut her hair short. Family members took her unique changes in stride.

"Nothing Mom does surprises me," Hutchens said. "She walks to a different drum and goes for her own goals."

Clemons said she cut her hair because she wanted to have her own look, as people often mistook her for her twin.

The sisters always have shared an interest in natural healing methods. After Clemons moved back to Alaska, she joined Leigh in the study of herbal and homeopathic remedies.

"We spent a lot of time studying the local stuff," said Leigh. "I'm still using some tinctures I made from herbs we gathered on the peninsula."

Although Leigh had a stroke two years ago, she still shares her knowledge of medicinal plants.

"Just today, at therapy, I told two people about it," she said.

Leigh has moved to Anchorage, where she's receiving regular physical therapy sessions and getting better, she said. Her son lives in Anchorage, and Leigh plans to continue living there.

Inspiring others

As a therapist, Clemons saw many clients with chronic tension in their shoulders and necks. She became inspired to write and illustrate "Self Help for Neck Pain," a small manual on methods to prevent or relieve neck and shoulder tension.

Terri Morrison of Soldotna was having problems with her back and shoulders, when she received therapy from Clemons.

"She not only worked the tension out of my muscles, but she helped me learn it's really important to relax," said Morrison.

"Esta shows a genuine concern for people, and she got me thinking about taking better care of myself."

Morrison said Clemons helped inspire her to become a massage therapist herself. She has registered to take a four-month training workshop in Anchorage, beginning in September.

"I'm really excited about it," Morrison said. "The training is intensive, and I'll have to live in Anchorage for the duration of it."

"I'll be learning about anatomy and physiology, as well as various massage techniques," she said.

Morrison has been practicing massage on her family and friends. Like Clemons, she enjoys helping people and seeing positive results, she said.

The inventor at work

"I'm not surprised to hear that Esta invented something that will help people be more pain-free," Morrison said.

Clemons makes the neck supports in her own home. Like an assembly line, she sews, then stuffs them with buckwheat hulls. To reduce her workload, she has hired a seamstress.

"I'm still adjusting the pattern," Clemons said. "I want to have a larger size available. It will be 31 inches around, and 7 1/2-inches tall. "

The current nappers are 29 inches around and 6 1/2-inches tall.

The Neck Nappers are made of bright prewashed cotton, some sporting Alaska images such as moose, fish and ducks.

Clemons has a 600-pound bag of buckwheat hulls in her front yard. She bought that amount, to save on shipping charges.

"They're light in weight, but they take up a lot of space," she said.

"First, I ordered a 23-pound bag. It cost $13 for the bag, and $60 just to get it here. I finally started negotiating with a mill in North Dakota. The smallest shipment I could get from them was 600 pounds."

Clemons will use more than half of the bag for the 1,000 Neck Nappers she plans to take to the Alaska State Fair in August.

But her creations don't end there.

Clemons also devised the Better Back Balls, a product people can use on themselves to relieve muscle tension.

"A lot of people have tension here," Clemons said, pointing to the space between the shoulder blades. "I used to get it sometimes, when I worked in an office. I'd put a tennis ball in a sock and keep it in my desk drawer.

"I'd go in the bathroom and use it, where I wasn't office entertainment," Clemons laughed.

The Better Back Balls consist of a knit tube, about 24 inches long. There's a ball tied inside each end of the tube. One ball is rubber, the size of a racquetball. The second ball is smaller, made of hard plastic, the size of a golf ball.

"You just drop the large ball over your shoulder and position it over the tender spot," Clemons said. "Then lean against the ball, against a wall or door. You use steady pressure, or you can roll it a little, then drop it a little lower against your back.

"The soft rubber one is safe to roll across the spine, but the hard one goes deeper, so I don't want that one on the spine," she said.

"I'm glad she invented the Better Back Balls," Leigh said. "Mine go with me almost everywhere. When you get a knot and can't reach it, roll on that ball a while. It's not trigger therapy, but it kind of acts like it."

What's next?

In the future, Clemons plans to work on a prototype for another invention: a device for holding up a book, for reading in bed.

"I got the idea because Sis is paralyzed in one hand from the stroke," she said.

However, for now, Clemons is focusing on promoting the Neck Napper, which is on sale at Sugar Magnolias in Soldotna. She's also beginning to market it throughout the state.

Clemons plans to sell both of her products at her booth at the State Fair.

"That will be the biggest test market," she said.

Even through her inventions keep her busy, Clemons said she misses her massage therapy work.

"Since I had heart surgery, my arms and shoulders just won't do it any more," she said.

But through the helpful products she has designed, Clemons' work of promoting good health will continue.

Ann Marina is a free-lance writer who lives in Kenai.

Necessity, or a stiff neck, can be the mother of invention.

Two years ago, Kenai resident Esta Clemons had triple bypass surgery. While recovering, she often would doze off to sleep, sitting up in her chair.

"Those naps felt good as I was regaining my strength," she said.

But, oh, the side effects of napping in a chair.

"My head would drop to one side," Clemons said. "I'd wake up half an hour or so later, with a painful neck."

A certified massage therapist, Clemons was aware of how positioning affects a person's muscles. She tried propping herself up with pillows, but they'd move out of place. So the invention process began.

"First, I made a long narrow pillow, like a tube," she said. "I'd wrap it around my neck and prop my head against one side. That still wasn't satisfactory to me. I kept changing the pattern until it became what I now call the Neck Napper.

"It's not meant to be a medical device," she said. "It's just a soft neck support."

Clemons worked as a nurse before coming to Alaska, an experience that also helped her when she designed her creation.

"I remember seeing patients in the hospital and nursing home, sitting with their heads slumped over. You know their neck was just killing them."

Clemons is now 67 and has retired from her therapy practice.

Getting aligned

Clemons moved to the Kenai Peninsula from Albany, N.Y., in 1973. Her twin sister, Vesta Leigh, had been living here since 1971.

"Our brother, Gus Clemons, was the first in the family to come to Alaska," Clemons said. "In the 1950s, he was a deep-sea diver, and he helped set up some of the platforms in Cook Inlet."

From 1973 to 1986, Clemons was living with her second husband and raising her four children in Kenai.

"I bought The Trophy Shop and had the business next door to my husband's glass shop. We were on the (Kenai) Spur Highway in North Kenai," Clemons said.

Her daughter, Cindy Hutchens, remembers Clemons' creative style of engraving trophies and plaques.

"I used to enjoy watching her at work. She's good at working with her hands and loves using tools," Hutchens said.

In 1987, after getting a divorce, Clemons moved to Snohomish, Wash., where some of her family was living.

"I worked for Net Link, a company that sold satellite dish programming," she said.

After living in Snohomish for a year, her company was moving to Denver and asking which employees would like to move with them.

"I'd never been to Denver, so I thought, 'That sounds good. I'll go.'"

At the office in Denver, Clemons sometimes gave neck and shoulder massages to her co-workers at their desks.

"One woman liked the massages so much, she said I should take a seminar on massage therapy. She thought I was in the wrong line of work, and I soon agreed with her."

Clemons went to the seminar -- and was glad she did.

"It got me started on becoming a therapist," she said.

"I liked the hands-on, one-to-one aspect of massage therapy. When I'd worked as nurse, I was too busy to have quality one-on-one time with a patient."

While she continued working for Net Link, in her spare time, Clemons was learning to rub people the right way.

"I had a thousand hours of therapy training and practice in Denver," she said.

Her twin sister, Vesta Leigh, visited Clemons in Denver.

"It was great to see her massage career taking shape," Leigh said. "She was so enthusiastic about becoming a therapist. It was like she was saying, 'Eureka! I've found it.'

"She was really good at it, because she enjoyed it."

A sister's bond

In 1992, Clemons moved back to Kenai and into a new cabin next to her twin sister's house. She also had a new job: Her own therapy practice.

"It was a little scary, sometimes not knowing if I was going to get enough clients that week, to keep up with the bills."

Hutchens said she admires her mother's courage.

"She's a risk taker. If she has something she wants to do, she'll do it," she said. "Mom has always been that way, like when she moved to Denver without knowing anyone there. I got to see Colorado because she was living there."

After being back in Kenai about a year, Clemons painted her cabin a pastel purple on the outside, and cut her hair short. Family members took her unique changes in stride.

"Nothing Mom does surprises me," Hutchens said. "She walks to a different drum and goes for her own goals."

Clemons said she cut her hair because she wanted to have her own look, as people often mistook her for her twin.

The sisters always have shared an interest in natural healing methods. After Clemons moved back to Alaska, she joined Leigh in the study of herbal and homeopathic remedies.

"We spent a lot of time studying the local stuff," said Leigh. "I'm still using some tinctures I made from herbs we gathered on the peninsula."

Although Leigh had a stroke two years ago, she still shares her knowledge of medicinal plants.

"Just today, at therapy, I told two people about it," she said.

Leigh has moved to Anchorage, where she's receiving regular physical therapy sessions and getting better, she said. Her son lives in Anchorage, and Leigh plans to continue living there.

Inspiring others

As a therapist, Clemons saw many clients with chronic tension in their shoulders and necks. She became inspired to write and illustrate "Self Help for Neck Pain," a small manual on methods to prevent or relieve neck and shoulder tension.

Terri Morrison of Soldotna was having problems with her back and shoulders, when she received therapy from Clemons.

"She not only worked the tension out of my muscles, but she helped me learn it's really important to relax," said Morrison.

"Esta shows a genuine concern for people, and she got me thinking about taking better care of myself."

Morrison said Clemons helped inspire her to become a massage therapist herself. She has registered to take a four-month training workshop in Anchorage, beginning in September.

"I'm really excited about it," Morrison said. "The training is intensive, and I'll have to live in Anchorage for the duration of it."

"I'll be learning about anatomy and physiology, as well as various massage techniques," she said.

Morrison has been practicing massage on her family and friends. Like Clemons, she enjoys helping people and seeing positive results, she said.

The inventor at work

"I'm not surprised to hear that Esta invented something that will help people be more pain-free," Morrison said.

Clemons makes the neck supports in her own home. Like an assembly line, she sews, then stuffs them with buckwheat hulls. To reduce her workload, she has hired a seamstress.

"I'm still adjusting the pattern," Clemons said. "I want to have a larger size available. It will be 31 inches around, and 7 1/2-inches tall. "

The current nappers are 29 inches around and 6 1/2-inches tall.

The Neck Nappers are made of bright prewashed cotton, some sporting Alaska images such as moose, fish and ducks.

Clemons has a 600-pound bag of buckwheat hulls in her front yard. She bought that amount, to save on shipping charges.

"They're light in weight, but they take up a lot of space," she said.

"First, I ordered a 23-pound bag. It cost $13 for the bag, and $60 just to get it here. I finally started negotiating with a mill in North Dakota. The smallest shipment I could get from them was 600 pounds."

Clemons will use more than half of the bag for the 1,000 Neck Nappers she plans to take to the Alaska State Fair in August.

But her creations don't end there.

Clemons also devised the Better Back Balls, a product people can use on themselves to relieve muscle tension.

"A lot of people have tension here," Clemons said, pointing to the space between the shoulder blades. "I used to get it sometimes, when I worked in an office. I'd put a tennis ball in a sock and keep it in my desk drawer.

"I'd go in the bathroom and use it, where I wasn't office entertainment," Clemons laughed.

The Better Back Balls consist of a knit tube, about 24 inches long. There's a ball tied inside each end of the tube. One ball is rubber, the size of a racquetball. The second ball is smaller, made of hard plastic, the size of a golf ball.

"You just drop the large ball over your shoulder and position it over the tender spot," Clemons said. "Then lean against the ball, against a wall or door. You use steady pressure, or you can roll it a little, then drop it a little lower against your back.

"The soft rubber one is safe to roll across the spine, but the hard one goes deeper, so I don't want that one on the spine," she said.

"I'm glad she invented the Better Back Balls," Leigh said. "Mine go with me almost everywhere. When you get a knot and can't reach it, roll on that ball a while. It's not trigger therapy, but it kind of acts like it."

What's next?

In the future, Clemons plans to work on a prototype for another invention: a device for holding up a book, for reading in bed.

"I got the idea because Sis is paralyzed in one hand from the stroke," she said.

However, for now, Clemons is focusing on promoting the Neck Napper, which is on sale at Sugar Magnolias in Soldotna. She's also beginning to market it throughout the state.

Clemons plans to sell both of her products at her booth at the State Fair.

"That will be the biggest test market," she said.

Even through her inventions keep her busy, Clemons said she misses her massage therapy work.

"Since I had heart surgery, my arms and shoulders just won't do it any more," she said.

But through the helpful products she has designed, Clemons' work of promoting good health will continue.

Ann Marina is a free-lance writer who lives in Kenai.

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