Hope on a hard drive: the story behind CaringBridge

- Next month the website that offers hope on a hard drive to millions of people across the planet turns 19 years old. The site, CaringBridge, began in the Twin Cities by a woman who helped her friends get through a medical crisis.

THE INSPIRATION

Back in 1997, Darrin Swanson's wife JoAnn was 23 weeks into her pregnancy. She felt awful and her blood pressure was too high. Doctors put her on bed rest and kept her in a dark room, so she would not have a seizure. They hoped it would give her unborn child a better chance to make it.

Just a year before the Swansons had lost a baby to an umbilical cord death.

After three days JoAnn's condition got worse.

"They said you know what this isn't working, so we have to deliver her because basically you will die if we don't deliver her," JoAnn recalled.

Baby Brighid arrived weighing just over a pound.

Darrin now had two lives on a tightrope and he needed a net. The couple had family in other states and in Europe who wanted to help, but Darrin had no time to call them. This was also before social media made connecting with people across the globe simple and available.

At the time, their close friend, Sona Mehring, had a consulting company and was creating webpages. She got an idea, sat down at her home computer and designed a very simple web page. It included pictures and news about Brighid and Joann in the hospital. It also allowed friends and family to post comments.

"They were like they were in the room with you," JoAnn remembered. "Like they were going through the whole deal with you, instead of you going through it yourself."

They needed that social support even more when 9-day-old Brighid was rushed into emergency surgery and died on the operating table.

The Swanson's say the love expressed on that webpage helped carry them through one of the most painful chapters of their life.

"You know your heart is warmed by all the people that helped. The whole world is warmed by what Sona created,"  JoAnn said.

CARINGBRIDGE NAMED

Merhing saw the huge potential of her creation.  But it needed a title. She wanted something to honor Brighid so she used part of her name, "CaringBridge".

For the first seven years of its existence, Mehring ran the site out of her Eagan home. Her sons helped mail out thank-you notes to people who sent in money to keep the site going.

It's come a long way since then.

"Earlier this year CaringBridge passed its two billionth visit, and I think of that as two billion acts of love, hope and kindness that have happened on CaringBridge," Merhing said proudly.

The non-profit survives strictly on donations from users.  Mehring doesn't want ads cluttering up any one's page. Mehring says she has turned down a lot of money to help keep the site a non-profit.

Mehring recently stepped down as CEO of Caringbridge.  But she's still very much involved in guiding its future.

TISSUES REQUIRED AT EMPLOYEE MEETINGS

The organization now employs 40 people who make sure the technology behind more than 600 thousand individual CaringBridge pages runs smoothly.

Every month the staff gets to see how their work is making a difference. A family that's used the site is invited in to share their story, and often employees get emotional hearing from them.   

"When she had intense pain she would fold her hands like that and we would call it her praying hands," said Karen Hohertz-Jacob who discovered CaringBridge when her 11-month old daughter was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

"I actually truly believe that there are health benefits," she said.

The support from others helped her stay positive as she watched Kate go through 8 rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries

"And look at her now, right, she's everything we hoped for right," she said from her home as her daughter watched her mother being interviewed. Years later Kate is doing well.  

Every 7 minutes someone starts a new personal page on the site and it's used by people in more than 200 countries and territories around the world.

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