In the summer of 2017, when Larry Istrail was a resident on rotation at Inova Fairfax, he met a patient suffering from a rare tumor called a pheochromocytoma. Usually noncancerous and treatable with surgery, a pheochromocytoma causes the adrenal glands to pump out too much adrenaline, leading to high blood pressure, sweating, or anxiety. Basically, he says, the symptoms are similar to drinking too much coffee.
Now, Istrail, an internist at Inova Fairfax who lives in Arlington, has launched an online-only coffee company, Pheo Coffee, named after the condition. The 32-year-old says he jokingly ran the name by his friends. They thought it was a good idea.
The only problem with starting a coffee company? Istrail didn’t have any experience roasting coffee. He began buying wholesale coffee from Ethiopia and Mexico and roasting it in an iron skillet in his kitchen. After around 100 unsuccessful attempts and a lot of burned beans, he turned to Lone Oak Coffee Company in Winchester, Va., for roasting. Istrail now offers four kinds of coffee that can be purchased online here.
Each roast honors a significant moment or person in medicine: the Butterfly blend is a nod to Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing; Wilhelm Rontgen’s X is a breakfast blend that celebrates the discoverer of X-rays; Dr. Morton’s Dulci Vitrioli is a single origin Mexican Chiapas that tells the story of the first use of anesthesia; and Dr. Oliver’s Norepi is a single-origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, reminiscent of tea, that honors the discovery of adrenaline.
Istrail had dabbled in technology-focused healthcare, but wanted to create a business with a stronger social mission. He partnered with Watsi, which he likens to a “Kickstarter for healthcare.” A portion of the proceeds from the coffee and other merchandise—medically themed shirts, mugs, and glassware—ultimately go toward surgeries in developing countries around the world. When you buy coffee or any other item, you receive a photo of the person your purchase is directly impacting. To date, Istrail has helped to fund ten surgeries, with ten more currently in the works.
One of Istrail’s most memorable patient stories is that of a 17-year-old Burmese girl named Khin, who was born with a rare heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot. Without early intervention, most individuals experience severe complications that can lead to death in early adulthood. With just $1,500, Khin was able to undergo life-saving heart surgery in April, and is now healthy, hoping one day to become a teacher. In the “after” photo online, she has a huge smile on her face.
“I thought that was really powerful,” says Istrail. “That was really nice to see.”