Susan Braig has turned to selling drugs to pay her medical bills.
The 61-year-old Altadena cancer survivor takes old pharmaceutical pills and tablets and mounts them on costume jewelry to create colorful necklaces, pendants, earrings and tiaras that she sells.
She got the idea for her unusual artwork after being diagnosed with breast cancer and starting chemotherapy in 2004.
“I bought my first round of medicine and it cost $500 out of my own pocket,” she said. “I looked at the drugstore receipt and then at the little pills and wondered if they were precious gems.”
It turned out they were precious in more ways than one.
Seven years after beginning treatment, Braig is cancer-free. And she is using expensive unused cancer-fighting pills in jewelry that she sells to defray unpaid treatment costs.
“I’m deeply in debt because I was underinsured,” she said. Her private health insurance did not kick in until she had paid a yearly $1,000 deductible and $2,500 in co-pays, and it did not cover the cost of outpatient care, which is what most of the lengthy treatment was.
This month, she lost her private insurance altogether. “I went from underinsured to uninsured,” she said with a grim smile.
The idea for pill jewelry came in 2007 when Braig participated in a medical-themed art exhibition and performance event organized by the NewTown Pasadena Foundation. At the time, she was working as a grant writer for arts organizations and as a painter and artist specializing in satirical pieces.
She set out to create a mock Tiffany & Co. jewelry advertisement for the exhibition. She envisioned the ad depicting different medications in place of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. But Braig ended up constructing an actual princess’ tiara encrusted with her leftover cancer meds, along with several other pieces.
“It was a clean tie-in between her personal life, her professional life and socio-political life, a kind of convergence that is rare,” said Richard Amromin, a composer and arts curator who is artistic director of NewTown Pasadena. Other pieces in the 2007 show included hospital-themed mosaics, artwork made of syringes and a large sculpture made of latex operating-room gloves, he said.
Show-goers’ response prompted Braig to launch the line she calls Designer Drug Jewelry.
Friends began donating their own leftover and outdated pills and gel capsules to her. Braig replaces the original plastic pill bottles’ labels with “Designer Drug” stickers before placing each jewelry piece inside with a cotton ball.
She sells the artwork, priced from $15 to $150, at crafts shows she attends dressed in a white medical lab coat. The jewelry pill bottles are wrapped with a ribbon of gauze and placed in tiny shopping bags made from surgical face masks.
Braig donates other pieces to nonprofit groups for fundraiser auctions and is considering distribution through hospital gift shops.
The pills and gel caps used in the 500 or so pendants, pins and other pieces she has completed are coated with a sealant and glued to the costume jewelry. That renders the meds “non-abusable,” as Braig puts it.
Although the gel tablets can leak if punctured and can degrade and melt if left exposed to sunlight, pills seem to retain their color despite the sealant, Braig said, displaying one of her first pieces: a pin containing six of her old Zofran anti-nausea pills whose wheat color still glistens.
She said one of her most popular pieces is a pendant that features a Viagra pill in the middle.
“Women with a sense of humor — or with a middle-aged husband — like them,” Braig said. “They are good sellers, although I’ve had an extremely limited supply of them to work with.”
Besides helping pay off her medical debt, creating pill jewelry is fun, she said. “I needed satire and humor for therapy when I was fighting cancer.”
Laughter really can be one of the best medicines.