In most hospitals, cell phones are prohibited. This seemingly insignificant rule doesn’t affect most people until they have a loved one in a medical crisis. Then — not being able to call, stay in touch, report progress — it can become an additional burden during an already stressful situation.

It’s not uncommon to see families lined up outside waiting rooms and intensive care units to use either a local phone line or a worn out pay phone down the hall. They are often torn between staying near their loved one’s bedside or leaving temporarily to call and update concerned friends and family at home.

This was the challenge Sona Mehring faced 10 years ago when a close friend was struggling with a high-risk pregnancy. Mehring took the initiative to become the point of contact as the couple fought for their newborn’s life. Instead of making call after call or asking family members to relay messages to each other, Mehring created a weblog to update everyone about Baby Brighid’s progress simultaneously.

“My two good friends had a very premature baby, and they asked me to let everybody know what was going on,” Mehring explains. “Instead of making phone calls, I made a website. It certainly made it instantly easier to let everyone know what was going on. But it also became this connecting point bringing all their friends and family together to help them in this situation.”

The website made it possible for the couple to post daily news, updates and photos for a wide circle of family and friends without placing additional demands on hospital staff or interfering with the mother’s need to rest. Mehring also attached an online guestbook that allowed visitors to respond to the posts and send the family messages of support and encouragement.

Sadly, Brighid passed away after nine days at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. At that point, the website became the medium for Joann and Darrin (last names intentionally omitted) to convey their heartbreaking loss without having to rehash the events over and over again.

On the basis of the overwhelming response, both Mehring and the grieving couple realized similar websites could benefit other parents of critically ill children or even adults facing a medical crisis. Today, through the help of a memorial fund created in Brighid’s memory, Children’s Hospital in St. Paul provides computer and Internet access for patients and families wishing to create their own online communities.

“The night their baby was born, so was the first CaringBridge site,” Mehring recalls. “That first experience was so amazing — not only letting people know what was going on, but being able to use technology to connect people. We knew that this was something that anyone in a serious health condition could use. Joann and Darrin were instrumental in saying that this was a service that was so helpful that it needed to be available to others. It was one of those life events that we knew could be used to help other people.”

Now, 10 years later, is a nonprofit web service that connects family and friends during periods of critical illness, treatment or recovery. The service is free, private and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the last decade, 70,000 families have created personalized websites. The site has logged more than 400 million visits, and more than 10 million messages of support have been entered in CaringBridge guestbooks. Individuals from more than 40 countries have used the online communication tool.

“Even though we are connecting 250,000 people a day, we are still only at the tip of the iceberg. Most people only know about CaringBridge by word of mouth. It’s been very grassroots, but what we are striving to do is make sure that everyone that is in this type of situation knows about the service,” says Mehring, recognized by as one of the nation’s leading women working for change. She is a member of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the National Health Council.

Mehring says she designed the site to allow even the most technologically unsavvy of individuals to build and personalize a weblog (blog). Websites can be completed in three easy steps.

“We hear over and over again people saying thank you for making CaringBridge so easy,” she says. “That is one of our primary core values. CaringBridge is very easy to use, and you don’t have to know a lot about technology — the site does that for you.”

She adds, “I think this service should be prescribed to anyone facing a serious health condition because being connected to your friends and family is that important. It’s not only for the person who is dealing with the illness but also for their caregivers and loved ones.”

One counselor’s firsthand experience

Counseling Today first learned about CaringBridge through Brooke Collison, a former president of the American Counseling Association. He described a wonderful tool that his close friend was using during his fight with an aggressive form of cancer. The website, Collison said, was allowing his longtime colleague, Reese House, to stay in touch with his many friends across the nation.

House, a distinguished leader in the counseling profession, died peacefully in his home on Sept. 10 (see page 44). But several weeks before he passed away, House shared with Counseling Today how CaringBridge had helped him as he faced his illness.

“I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in February 2006 and began both radiation and chemo treatments a little after that. I had heard about CaringBridge through a friend and checked it out. (I) then decided to create my own site and use it as a way of keeping folks informed,” he said.

At the time of the interview, House was in good spirits, but he knew the toughest times were still ahead. “The drama continues as the process of cancer treatments and care are still with us,” he said. “My partner Ted Guthrie and I decided to do this (CaringBridge) because we have various networks of friends around the U.S. and beyond. This seemed like a good way of getting information out and not having to repeat the same thing over and over. Partially, it is efficiency and, partially, a way of deciding what you want to share with others. Frankly, I am a little surprised that I decided to do this, as I am not a person that particularly likes to let everyone know exactly what is going on all of the time. However, it just seemed to me that transparency was the most important thing here.”

This transparency was also a surprise to some of his closest friends, including Collison, who says the blog allowed House to open up more to friends and family about his condition and medical treatments. “He was a very private person,” Collison says, “but when he started writing on the website, it was like a spider web out into the counseling community. He was very honest about his physical condition, and he could draw support from all the people leaving messages of encouragement to him.”

One of the website’s most beneficial aspects, Collison adds, is that individuals who are going through a medical crisis can provide updates on their condition in a single post instead of having to repeat themselves. From a counselor’s point of view, he notes, this lessens some of the emotional burden of sharing bad news.

“CaringBridge provides an electronic means of being open about your condition and then permitting caring people to be responsive or supportive —much like what good counseling enables,” Collison says. “In this electronic age, it’s a way to be in touch and to be in support for people in personally difficult times. Counselors can take a lesson from CaringBridge and should look for ways to use the same mechanisms in other human service areas.”

“No one has complained to us about this website,” House said during his interview. “Everyone seems to love it, use it and appreciate it. I am sure there are those who have different opinions, but if so, they have kept that to themselves. You know it is there; people use it if they want to. And I must tell you, there are those who cannot say enough times how important it is to them. One feature is that you can be notified by CaringBridge when I make a new post. That feature seems to be appreciated.”

Not all of House’s CaringBridge entries were about medical reports or test results. Many of the entries were peppered with House’s sense of humor or mentioned weekend plans. Often his friends replied, wishing him a happy birthday or teasing him about attending his 50th high school reunion. Aside from the many well wishes and prayers, several messages from friends and colleagues conveyed gratitude, thanked him for being an inspiration and even expressed hopes of future happy hour gatherings.

“I think the tool has helped in many ways, but the opportunity for people to know what is going on, to respond if they want to and to be able to hear from folks in so many different places is quite amazing,” House said. “Somehow, there is some peace of mind for me that I am able to put the information out to folks and let them decide how to process, what to do, how to respond.”

When asked how the CaringBridge website might be viewed as beneficial from a counselor’s perspective, House replied, “This is an interesting question and takes me different places. But I think what the blog does is allow people to use the site in ways that they never thought of, to go in new directions, to think in ways perhaps that haven’t been explored before.”

The intentional act of writing about one’s experiences can cause a person to reevaluate and rethink their perceptions and viewpoints when they see their words on paper or, in this case, on the computer screen, House noted.

When House wasn’t feeling well enough to write the posts, his daughter, Kelly, or his life partner, Guthrie, would update the blog. They also shared their gratitude for all those reading and replying to the entries. The blog also allowed House and his daughter to spend some special time together in his final days, when she would print out the words of comfort from friends and share them with her father. In closing, House said of CaringBridge, with a hint of his well-known and somewhat dry sense of humor, “I do really believe this is an effective tool, and I’m promoting it, or something similar.”

Guthrie added one of the final posts to the website on Sept. 11, shortly after midnight:

“Quietly, gently and unexpectedly, Reese left us … as the day turned toward evening. It was a day of restful sleep, without apparent pain. Though there was nothing we could do but stroke his arm, his shoulder, his brow, he needed nothing more from us … just to be there with him, witnesses to his calm departure.

“Over the last four hours I watched him, his brow would occasionally furrow. Once, he gave his best ‘pleased’ smile. But my mind’s eye will forever picture his look of serenity. His work was done. No more appointments, duties or items to be checked off the list. He could rest.

“It was a fitting end to a most fitting and accomplished life. We will all carry a piece of him along our own journeys and travel far better for it.”