Loved ones track healing through Web site

By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2008

A social networking site created a decade ago by a Minnesota woman helping a friend work through a crisis pregnancy has become a vehicle for wounded U.S. troops trying to stay connected with family and friends as they struggle to recover from war injuries.

Based in Minneapolis, CaringBridge.org allows seriously ill patients or their relatives to build free, personalized Web sites that include a guestbook, photo gallery and care journal to update loved ones. Users get online support and access to partner health care agencies as well.

Sona Mehring, 46, founded the nonprofit CaringBridge in 1997 and serves as its executive director. Since then, it’s received more than half a billion visits by family and friends who turn to the site for comfort and support during difficult times.

"Being able to bring together that circle of concerned family and friends is very powerful," Mehring said of the site that is one of the top three dot-orgs in the world, with 20 million visitors annually. "Even though it was started here, the Internet instantly made it a global service. … It certainly has grown globally."

Up to 10 percent of personal pages are devoted to wounded servicemembers back from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, she estimates.

"We really focus on a broad category of medical events, and certainly war injuries are part of that," Mehring said. "We also have a long relationship with Fisher House that started around 2001. It’s really helped us gain understanding with military families, the different hospitals where wounded troops are taken care of and medical personnel who were treating them."

She says a new site is created every eight minutes and administrators send out more than 300,000 notifications each day following user updates.

Anna Carncross set up a CaringBridge site for her uncle, Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Blaxton. The 46-year-old soldier from Okemos, Mich., was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in October.

He was airlifted to Germany and wound up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington a few days later.

"We didn’t necessarily want anyone and everyone to be able to read about Chris but wanted all of his friends and family to be able to visit the site as often as they wanted," Carncross said. "When Chris first got hurt, there were phone calls and e-mails going everywhere and it was impossible to make sure that everyone was updated."

She said posting on the site saved time for the family so they could take care of Blaxton, his wife, Sabine, and their four children.

"It was also a way that everyone could reach out to Chris by leaving comments for him to read," Carncross said. "It kept everyone up to date on Chris’ progress. Once he was able to, he started to update the page himself and it was wonderful to hear from him."

Last month, a large homecoming was held for Blaxton at Okemos High School.

The CaringBridge home page features a link to personal stories. Included is the tale of Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Andrew Kinard.

The Naval Academy graduate suffered massive injuries in a roadside bombing in Iraq in October 2006. He lost both legs in the blast and has experienced complications in virtually every area of his body. He underwent nearly 50 surgeries in the four months that followed.

Thousands of people from around the world have followed Kinard’s story through his CaringBridge page, which is updated daily by his older sister, Katherine. She believes his recovery has been bolstered by the awareness that so many have weighed in with encouragement, support and prayers.

"CaringBridge has been a huge blessing," Katherine says on the Web site. "I want people to hear his story. The more people he can touch, the bigger impact he can have."

Kinard optimistically looks to the future and plans to attend law school someday.

"I’m alive. I have my arms, my brain. What’s next?" he says under his personal story.

Mehring said a personal enthusiasm for the Internet has helped drive CaringBridge’s expansion.

"I knew this could help connect people going through any of these medical events. I really did," she said. "That was an important motivator, knowing this potential that was out there and how this could really, really touch many people’s lives.

"It has been wonderful to be able to combine that passion I have for technology to help people when they really need it most … There has really been this exponential effect."

She says CaringBridge’s free service is easy to use and available to anyone dealing with life-changing events.

"It’s been such a personally unique and powerful experience," Mehring said. "This is something that’s out there for anybody. We’ve really just hit the tip of the iceberg, and know we can go farther."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Blaxton, 46, is welcomed home last month by family and friends in Okemos, Mich. The soldier was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq last October. During his recovery, a personal Web site was set up at CaringBridge.org to help him stay connected with loved ones.

from around the web