Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, March 01 2011
Snapshot: Sona Mehring
Sona Mehring, is founder and CEO of CaringBridge, a nonprofit provider of free websites to help patients connect with loved ones during all kinds of significant health challenges like cancer. She created the concept in 1997 during a friend’s high-risk pregnancy when she was faced with the need to communicate health news about her close friend whose pregnancy was life threatening.
Mehring set up a site to share daily news about mom and baby and to enable visitors to share messages of love and encouragement. With extensive experience in the information technology industry, her vision was to build upon that personal experience. So she combined the capabilities of technology with the personal needs of people facing a significant health challenge to create CaringBridge. Since its founding, CaringBridge has recorded more than 1.3 billion visits to its many personal websites.
Mehring been widely honored for CaringBridge. Recently, she won titles as a Radical Tech CEO and Health Care Hero. In 2010 she received the Health Care Heroes Award from Twin Cities Business magazine. In 2009, she was named one of 25 Women Industry Leaders in the Twin Cities by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. She also has received a certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for outstanding and invaluable service to the community and was highlighted by msn.com as one of the nation’s leading Women Working for Change.
Several cancer survivors (including this writer) have credited their survival to the ability to communicate via CaringBridge with family and friends during their cancer journey.
Mehring lives in Eagan, Minn. and is the mother of three boys.
Womenetics: I understand that you have aggressive goals to ensure that more patients and families become aware of the free service provided by CaringBridge. What are you goals, and what is your strategy for reaching them?
Sona Mehring: We do! CaringBridge’s mission is to amplify the love, hope, and compassion in the world, making each health journey easier. To fulfill the mission we focus on three primary goals:
- Ensure families receive the love and compassion they need during a significant health challenge.
- Reach out and serve more families.
- Enable financial gifts, volunteering, and in-kind donations from donors and volunteers.
In the United States alone, 10,000 people per day are diagnosed with cancer or experience a premature birth or serious injury. During that same 24-hour period, only 200 of those create a CaringBridge site. The gap in serving all 10,000 people is primarily caused by them not knowing CaringBridge is available to them, for free, to help make their health journey easier.
Therefore, we employ many strategies to ensure more families are aware of CaringBridge. We partner with more than 500 hospitals and health-care systems and nearly 100 nonprofit health-based organizations that work directly with patients and families in need of CaringBridge.
Our collaborative effort ensures CaringBridge is recommended and provides families with hope and healing when health matters most. We also encourage those who have benefited from CaringBridge to recommend the service when someone in their life experiences a health challenge; these personal recommendations from a trusted source are vital to our growth.
Womenetics: Explain how patients and their families benefit from having a CaringBridge web page.
Mehring: The main benefits that patients, caregivers, and their families receive are:
- Simplified communication. CaringBridge eliminates the need to repeat the same story over and over and allows families to keep everyone informed with the same accurate information.
- Network of Support. A patient’s entire community comes together online to show their support and post messages of love, prayer, and encouragement. Seeing all of this support in one place is really beneficial. We regularly hear from our users about how CaringBridge helps them.
According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of CaringBridge by Ipsos Public Affairs, when asked about the gift they would most appreciate receiving while on their own health journey, nearly three out of five (58 percent) Americans ranked help with staying connected and updating other family and friends among their top two choices.
Patients who once connected primarily through phone calls and face-to-face communications are now using more sophisticated electronic methods to share information about treatment, receive help in coping, and build personal networks of family members, friends, and supporters. For example, two thirds (67 percent) of the adults polled who have shared updates about a significant health challenge have done so using some form of modern technology (email, text message, personal or private health website, blog or microblog). This data shows how important it is to have a safe and secure place online to share updates during health events.
Womenetics: I know that you are incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but what are the sources of your funding?
Mehring: Unlike many nonprofits, we receive the majority of our funding from individual donors, most of whom had a personal experience with CaringBridge, rather than corporations or foundations. About 90 percent of our funding comes from these individual donors. In 2010, more than 90,000 people donated to CaringBridge.
Womenetics: At what point, after initially creating a website for your friend, did you realize that you had started something that many other people would find useful?
Mehring: In 1997, my close friend endured a life-threatening pregnancy. My friend’s baby, Brighid, was born almost three months premature. At just 1 pound, she was quickly rushed to the newborn intensive care unit. Wanting to help my friend, I was given the job of contacting family and friends with updates. In no time, the size of my task became clear. I needed a fast, easy way to connect with everyone. With my background in technology, I decided that instead of making phone calls to family and friends around the world, I would create a website where everyone could log on and find the information for themselves.
The website kept everyone in the loop with daily postings about mom and Brighid. Sadly, after a nine-day struggle against tremendous odds, Brighid died in surgery. Anyone who has dealt with the loss of a loved one understands how painful it can be to share the news. The website was a place for the family to post that heart-wrenching news along with a final message to honor Brighid and thank family and friends for their support.
In turn, the website community poured their hearts out to the family in loving guest book messages. Brighid’s site confirmed the positive impact and power of the internet. I had to keep it going, to help other patients and their families who were going through similar experiences. It was at this point that I knew this was a tool that could benefit so many other people in similar situations.
Womenetics: How many people have created their own CaringBridge website?
Mehring: As of February, more than 254,000 personal sites have been created. Here are other statistics about CaringBridge use:
- Each day, a half million people connect through CaringBridge.
- More than 1 billion visits have been made to personal CaringBridge websites.
- The CaringBridge community includes authors, visitors, and/or donors in all 50 states and more than 225 countries and territories around the world.
Womenetics: How long do they usually keep their websites operating, and how many people, on average, visit each site?
Mehring: Looking at the CaringBridge sites created for cancer patients as an example, each site has an average of 145 registered users (and this doesn’t take into account the significant number of non-registered users) and 29 visits per day, with two to three of those visitors sharing words of encouragement in the guest book, usually on behalf of a family or community.
The length of time users keep their websites operating varies, from short periods to years, depending on the type of health journey. Some people continue to use their site even when the health crisis is over because they’ve come to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of journaling, and it is a way to remember what happened and see all the support they received in one place. We will never remove a site without checking with an author first. If authors decide to no longer use a site, they can also choose to have it printed into a full-color CaringBook as a keepsake.
Womenetics: How have you changed the original concept? In other words, what have you added and what have you subtracted?
Mehring: While we have made changes to the site like creating mobile plug-ins (including a mobile website for web-enabled smartphones and a CaringBridge app for iPhone users), developing Facebook cross-functionality, and evolving the way we partner with hospitals, the general principles have remained intact. We want to provide a safe, secure place for people battling significant health challenges to share updates with loved ones. Even with all of the technological developments in the last 14 years, this goal has never changed.
Womenetics: Do people use Facebook as an alternative to CaringBridge?
Mehring: With more than 500 million Facebook pages, we recognize that patients do use Facebook to provide some information about a significant health event. We also recognize that Facebook is an important opportunity for CaringBridge. People are online sharing but know the limitation and broadness of topics that are being shared. CaringBridge provides the right type of sharing during a sensitive time.
CaringBridge provides an easy connect to Facebook and a notification post to Facebook when someone’s CaringBridge site is updated. Facebook is for small talk. CaringBridge is for deep, emotional, personal, and caring conversations.
Womenetics: Your product revolves around people who have critical illnesses. How do you relax and blow off steam?
Mehring: It’s tremendously rewarding to work every day to help families and friends during one of the most impactful times of their lives. Life always does need a balance regardless of what you do. I have always been a very active person. I love sports and outdoor activities. And laughter, of course, is a great remedy for anything.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.