In 1997 Sona Mehring's close friends were midway through their pregnancy, when a sudden health problem sent them rushing to the hospital. During those first confused hours, Mehring felt helpless.
She called her friends to see if there was anything she could do to help. They asked her to let everyone else know what was happening.
Mehring grabbed a phone book and started looking up numbers. She immediately realized her strategy wasn't going to work. It was just too inefficient to track everyone down. And even if she could reach everyone, the prospect of telling the same story over and over meant it would likely take hours or even days to finish her task.
Mehring ditched the phone book and logged on to her computer.
"At the time I had a consulting business doing Web page design and thought, why don't I create a Web site to let everybody know what's going on," says Mehring. "The same night their baby Bridget was born that first CaringBridge Web site was born."
That was June 7, 1997.
Mehring acknowledges that her fledgling Web site was rather clunky. She had to type in all the computer code to update the pages. But in most other respects, the site was very similar to how CaringBridge looks today. It had a journal page where her friends Darrin and JoAnn could share their story and a guestbook page for messages of support from friends and family. Mehring even posted pictures of tiny Bridget, who only lived nine days.
"The real magic was the ability to connect that group of friends and family across the street or around the world to the situation. Immediately JoAnn and Darrin felt less isolated," says Mehring.
She assumed she wasn't the first person to come up with the idea. Later, when Mehring searched the Internet for similar sites, she didn't find anything quite as comprehensive as what she had created. So she immediately set out to offer CaringBridge to anyone else who needed it.
That first year she created 50 sites for patients and their families. The next year she had 100 followed by 200 the year after and so on. The service has always been free.
For patient Colin Kuehn the Web site has been a source of tremendous strength. Kuehn was diagnosed with leukemia about a month ago. The young husband and father of two says the site has helped him reconnect with people he hasn't heard from in 25 or 30 years.
"Knowing these people are still out there just brought me a lot of happiness when I really needed it," says Kuehn.
Kuehn, who's day job is in information technology, says he had no apprehension about sharing his medical story on his personalized Web site. He has been confined in a Rochester hospital for weeks and he says the Web site has been a nice distraction.
But not everyone is so immediately comfortable with the Web site. Brian Lucas recalls the day he started a page for his wife Betsy.
"I created a page and I remember staring at the page and then reading about the site and checking some model sites and then closing it and thinking, I don't want to be a part of that," says Lucas.
That was two years ago, when he had just found out about his wife's leukemia.
"When you're reading about it and you see all these pages of people who are fighting really difficult fights and they're going through a lot of things that you don't want to have any part of, even though it was obvious that we were going to have that kind of fight, it's hard to admit that that's where you are," says Lucas.
Days later, after a flurry of cumbersome e-mail exchanges with friends and family, he returned to the CaringBridge site.
"I felt like I really needed it and it was just too hard to be managing all of this," he says.
Any reluctance he felt about the Web site soon faded. Lucas says it not only made their hospital experience easier, he thinks the positive messages it contained helped his wife recover more quickly from her bone marrow transplant.
When Betsy finally came home from the hospital reclaiming her old life seemed a little easier than she had expected, she says.
"When I started to go out again and bump in to people, they already knew what was happening," says Betsy Lucas. "They knew the latest. They knew what I'd been through and so we didn't have to start the story over. They could just embrace me and be happy to see me and say how are you feeling today?"
Of the 63,000 CaringBridge sites, 5000 have been established outside of the U.S. Eighty-five percent of the Web site's budget comes from individual contributions. Donations from hospitals make up the rest. The non-profit now has a staff of 20 and later this year CaringBridge plans to offer Spanish language Web sites.