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Mom Invents A Million-Dollar Idea To Take The Sting Out Of Shots

12/12/2012 10:17 am ET | Updated Dec 13, 2012

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a doctor who couldn't stand to see her son traumatized during routine vaccinations. She realized her son was one of many with the same fears, and designed a way to ease getting painful shots. What she created turned into a million-dollar product helping both children and adults. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

If there’s anyone who knows how to handle pain, it’s a pediatric emergency room physician. So Dr. Amy Baxter, who was in the midst of a fellowship at a children’s hospital in Virginia, was pretty certain she was one step ahead when it was time to take her 4-year-old son, Max, in for routine vaccinations.

“I had topical anesthetic cream on his arm to decrease the pain,” Amy explains. “I brought a book for him to look at while he was getting the shots, a box of juice for him to drink so there would be competing sensations and a special secret surprise for him as a reward. And I explained to him that he was getting medicine to help him stay healthy. He’d always been good about getting shots, but I had my bases covered.”

But nothing Amy packed in her purse or said to her son could have prepared either of them for what happened next.

“A nurse came in and I told her about the numbing cream. She just looked at me with this glare. Then she looked Max in the eye, ripped off the sticker I’d put on his arm to keep him from rubbing off the anesthetic and said, ‘That stuff doesn’t work. You’re going to sit there and not move or this is really going to hurt.’”

It all happened so quickly that Amy was speechless -- until Max started throwing up.

“I went from feeling like a special insider,” Amy recalled, “to feeling as much frustration and disappointment as any other mother. You spend all of your energy as a new parent protecting this little person and then something like this happens and they look at you, like ‘I can’t believe you betrayed me.’”

Worse yet, the experience traumatized young Max so much that every time he heard he was going to the doctor, even when it wasn’t for shots, he’d throw up again. The little boy who had been fearless in the doctor’s office had developed a phobia.

“I was concerned that he wouldn’t grow out of this -- that once he was old enough to take himself to the doctor, he probably wouldn’t. And I thought if I couldn’t do something, what could your average mother do?”

And that’s when Amy moved into action. She dove into all the latest research on pain and began searching for a solution. With children receiving more than 30 vaccinations before the age of 6, she knew Max was not alone. She was determined to find something that would help parents protect their children from the stinging pain of a shot and from medical practitioners who had become numb to the long-term impact they might be having on a child.

“I knew that ice could block pain signals from going to the brain,” Amy said, “that’s why when you burn your hand and put it under cold water, there’s an instant feeling of relief. But I needed something more -- something that would create a numbing effect in seconds, so it could be used while a child is being given shots, yet not slow down the nursing staff.”

But Amy didn’t find her answer in a medical book. She found it on her way home after an all-night shift in the emergency room. As the exhausted doctor drove down the highway, she felt a constant vibration from her steering wheel and made a mental note to have her tires checked, thinking they might be out of balance. But then as she pulled into her driveway, she noticed something else -- her hands were numb.

“It was a Eureka moment! I ran into the house and started rummaging around looking for a little pocket massager I knew we had somewhere. My husband Louis, who is a former Boy Scout, searched for something cold and ended up grabbing a bag of frozen peas, something he’d used time and time again on outings.”

“Max was 7 by that point and an eager volunteer. So we applied the vibration and the cold peas to his hand, and then I took out a tool I use for neurological testing -- a Wartenberg wheel, which kind of looks like a pizza cutter with spokes -- and ran it down the area slowly. He felt absolutely nothing. The competing sensations had desensitized his nerves and in turn dulled any sort of sharp pain.”

Article continues below slideshow.

It Ain't Over: Amy Baxter

With the answer at her fingertips, there was just one more hurdle to overcome. Amy was a doctor, not an engineer. She had no idea how to create vibrations. So she went straight to the best place she could think of -- a sex shop in Atlanta’s red light district -- to buy the real thing.

“I took two graduate students with me and went into the cleanest-looking shop I could find. They were both beet red and I’m pretty sure one of them was expecting people to jump on him and begin rubbing up and down. I asked what was on sale. The clerk pointed me to the back of the store and I walked out with 10 different vibrate-y things, took them home and smashed them all open."

There were some who thought maybe Amy was taking her idea a little too far.

“My father had pity in his eyes and fear,” she laughed. “He was sure I was throwing away my academic reputation on a little vibrator. I remember he said, ‘It’s okay honey, you’ll have other ideas.’ But he knew better than to tell me not to do something.”

And it wasn’t long before she had a prototype, a vibrating pod that she covered in yellow and black tape which looked and sounded like a really big bee. She attached a tiny ice pack and named it Buzzy, a playful character that would help parents take the sting out of shots.

“I thought, ‘I have the answer to pain! Everyone will love this!’ So I took it to the big pharmaceutical companies. But they wanted me to make it disposable so people would buy it again and again or really expensive so it could be sold to hospitals. I created this for parents, so I wasn’t about to turn it into something they couldn’t afford.”

So with what one might call a bee in her bonnet, Amy went back to the drawing board, teaming up with industrial designers who believed in her vision. And as she tried to figure out how she was going to pay them for their help, she struck gold. A friend told her that 3 percent of all National Institute of Health (NIH) grants were earmarked for small business research and development. So she filled out the forms and waited, checking the NIH website hourly for weeks until they finally posted the scores.

“It was 11 o’clock at night,” Amy said, “and I didn’t think it was possible to have the enormous emotional response I had to three digits on a screen. But when I saw the score, I knew we had gotten the funding. We were about to get $1.1 million to bring Buzzy to life.”

And in February 2009, eight years after that painful day when Amy vowed to change the way kids experienced shots, she got a check that would give Buzzy exactly the boost he needed to go into full production.

The tenacious Mompreneur launched a website and went to her first trade show. Within hours, the pain management community was buzzing, but not just about Buzzy’s benefit to kids. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies wanted it for adults as well to dull the pain of stinging medications and for patients who needed repeated injections.

Today, Buzzy is quickly approaching a million dollars in revenue. And now that Amy has found an Atlanta-based manufacturer that can keep up with demand, he’ll also be making his way to the national chain Walgreens, first on their website and then on to their stores.

“I would not have been able to stand the idea that I had the opportunity to help someone and never did. The question for me was whether I could balance the sacrifices -- taking time away from my kids and from practicing medicine. But my kids are so proud to have a mom who invented something that helps their friends. And now that they’ve seen me create something out of nothing, they’re growing up feeling like there’s nothing they can’t do."

“And even my father is buying them now," she said with a mischievous smile, "for his friends who are afraid to get flu shots.”

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