September 19, 2014

It’s been nearly ten years since I spent weeks in a hushed hospital room with my young daughter as she fought for her life. We were blessed with a confluence of factors that led to a successful bone marrow transplant – principally expert medical care, a perfectly matched donor and a loyal support network. Aside from the medical challenges, maintaining faith and resolve was a constant struggle. Years later I recognize how instrumental CaringBridge was in helping us to navigate an emotional journey.

Launched in 1997, CaringBridge was an early form of social media, created so people dealing with health issues could remain connected to their families and friends (www.caringbridge.org). When my daughter was ill the nonprofit organization’s platform became our lifeline to the outside world, not only while she was in isolation on the transplant floor at the University of Minnesota, but also during the long recovery at home. On dark days I would solicit jokes or fresh perspective on how to deal with issues such as the loss of an 11-year-old’s head of hair. When things were going well I shared the news enthusiastically.

Recently I met with its founder, Sona Mehring, to learn more about the organization and to give thanks. I wanted her to know that CaringBridge helped to mitigate what at times was an overwhelming sense of isolation. It also demonstrated the healing power of words and transformed me into a storyteller.

Mehring developed CaringBridge when personal computers and the World Wide Web were in their relative infancy. When a couple she knew had a premature baby they asked her to call friends to keep them apprised. Mehring, a computer scientist, decided it was easier and more efficient to create a website to do so. The site was well received and helped to create a bond among the people who later gathered for the baby’s memorial service.

Increasingly we utilize advertising-laden social media to post photos of cute babies and vacations in faraway places. Everyone appears to have a wonderful life. CaringBridge displays a different side of life and involves a much deeper, more intimate, level of communication. Faced with life-threatening challenges, people share their fears and open their hearts. CaringBridge serves as a rallying point when people most need one.

For Natalie Bushaw of Eagan, CaringBridge has been a lifesaver. Just over eleven years ago she was hospitalized weeks before she was supposed to deliver twin boys. Told about CaringBridge, she set up a site as she awaited the twins’ arrival. In the early years she could only use her computer to update friends and family about the preemies, both of whom were both born with health challenges. Though her husband Ben used it initially, the platform was a more natural fit for Natalie, the public relations director for Life Time Fitness.

Bushaw found it was a huge stress reliever to be able to put into words what was happening in real time. “There were so many times we didn’t know if we were going to make it through the hour or the day,” she says. Often, when things were chaotic – literally life and death – she practically ran to the computer to type updates. Messages would stream in from their prayer warriors, offering comfort and peace.

These days Bushaw can access their site through her mobile phone, as she did recently, when one of the twins was hospitalized unexpectedly. She initially sent out a prayer request on her phone; later she typed a more complete update on her computer. The site has been both cathartic and life saving for her, so much so that she became an ambassador for CaringBridge. Bushaw visits workplaces to talk about how people can both access it and support it financially. Last year CaringBridge honored her as volunteer of the year.

Seventeen years after its inception, the brainchild of a woman raised by a nurse in a small town has grown exponentially. Each day, CaringBridge serves more than half a million people who learn of it by word of mouth, from social workers, chaplains, child life specialists and medical providers. They access the sites in hospitals and homes around the United States and across the globe. They set up pages and control how public or private they will be. A fundamental tenet of the nonprofit is everyone will have free, secure access.

Adjusting to the dramatic increase in mobile usage has been a challenge for the organization. Mehring and her staff continue to explore ways to keep it user friendly. They have resisted many opportunities to open the sites to advertisers, confident the community of people who use CaringBridge will continue to support it through charitable giving.

“If people are philanthropic they are philanthropic,” Mehring says. “To be philanthropic doesn’t require you to be rich. Some people have that more in their mindset than others and they get it right away. They think this is a great service and they get that we’re not run on ads and we’re not selling data. Our model is charitable giving and it’s important to have this protected destination available to people who are going through a health journey.”