Women Who Inspire: Sona Mehring, Creator of CaringBridge

CaringBridge is a free service that does not register on your radar until you need it, when a close friend or family member is facing a health challenge. Yet CaringBridge websites all over the world have logged 1.3 billion visits since Sona Mehring created the first model for building a community of support for patients and their families. It is one of the most successful online healthcare communities in the world. The tiny marketing budget, supported almost completely by small private donations, supports hundreds of thousands of sites in over 225 countries.

In 1997, Sona Mehring had a consulting business doing web page design for businesses. When one of her close friends had a life-threatening pregnancy, Sona created a website that allowed family members to communicate information to a wide circle of people in a timely manner without disturbing her friends need for rest or burdening hospital personnel with phone calls. The baby, a one-pound preemie, was born almost 3 months premature. Good wishes and prayers were channeled through the website as well.

Sadly, Baby Bridghid died 9 days after being born. Again, the CaringBridge website allowed the family to convey the news widely and to post a final message about Bridghid and honor the outpouring of love from an online community that had become close, having shared an intimate and powerful bonding experience. Everyone who was involved agreed that it was a profound experience and should be available to everyone.

The growth experience was purely organic, says Sona. This was before Facebook and social media; the benefits of using CaringBridge spread by word of mouth. The first 4 to 5 years were spent improving the technology for ease of set up and the ability to add features. The last 3 to 4 years have been more proactive toward outreach, although the model will always need to be updated for technology changes. Mobile features will be introduced, for instance, as people continue to connect in different ways. As CaringBridge grew, Sona progressed as a software engineer/consultant for larger companies, leading the creation of several software/tech companies. But after incorporating CaringBridge as a nonprofit, in 2002 Sona quit her business to dedicate herself solely to promoting and perpetuating the resources http://CaringBridge.org can offer families facing health challenges. Like Facebook, CaringBridge was a great idea whose time had come. Unlike Facebook, which is all about you, CaringBridge is all about someone else. But Facebook has been a friend to CaringBridge in that it can spread the word of the service it provides for connecting individuals at intense times in their lives. (You can sign into CaringBridge from Facebook.) Privacy is paramount and it is important that the CaringBridge environment be calm and comforting. We have no ads, no outside noise, and are protective of personal data, says Sona. Everything is centered on offering unobtrusive support to the individual with the health challenge -- which is most often cancer but can also be things like organ transplant, recovering from an automobile accident, or even military deployment and to the family and friends who are caregivers or support people. CaringBridge provides a sacred space for sensitive and important conversations, Sona feels.
Today, Sona spends her time speaking at health and technology conferences and doing interviews with media or writers. My role is to promote outreach, awareness and growth, says Sona. Women, especially, understand the importance of communication and connection to friends and family during a health crisis, Sona notes. Her perspective is that when physicians are prescribing a course of treatment, they should also prescribe setting up a CaringBridge site. People have told me that this was the most important thing they had as they navigated the health system and the emotional world of illness, says Sona.Sona thinks of CaringBridge as using technology to deliver compassion and connect the hearts behind the keyboards. She considers whatever success and impact the concept has had to be Bridghids legacy: even the name has a little bit of Bridghid in it. To find out how to set up a CaringBridge site, visit http://caringbridge.org.Judy Kirkwood remembers Claire Ryans CaringBridge site as a warm and welcoming place to share good thoughts and memories of a remarkable friend.
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