Necessity is the Mother
From the hospital, I called a patent attorney. I didn't have much else to do, and I was tired of hearing myself complain. I was 29 years old, going through cancer treatment, and awkwardly trying to get around while hooked to a tipping, rusty pipes-on-wheels contraption commonly known as the I.V. pole. It made a miserable experience even more miserable. The final, unsightly humiliation was having so much equipment mounted to the pole and plugged into every available outlet, that I couldn't zig-zag across the room and unplug everything in time to make it to the bathroom.
A few years, hundreds of hours of research, multiple engineers and industrial designers, and many prototypes and investor dollars later, I had a patented design for a new I.V. pole called Safepole. The healthcare market was thrilled. Finally, an innovative and safer replacement to a fundamental piece of equipment that had seen very little improvement since WWII.
One month later, the economy tanked, causing widespread budget freezes at hospitals. But, of course, patent costs and high FDA fees (for what exactly, since I.V. poles don't require FDA approval?) remained unaffected, turning the screws at both ends of the worst possible time for a fledgling company.At the helm of my woman-owned, small business, I felt the daily struggle for survival as we sold, made and shipped our product. Although we pulled through the crisis, and Safepole is a growing company today, I began to forget why I started all this in the first place. Until I received an email. Thelma Conklin is the type of person who makes me feel utterly lazy. She emailed when she was at Penn State's Hershey Children's Hospital with her baby son who had undergone open heart surgery:
She went on to describe the serious health conditions of ten of her children and the bulk of home equipment they require--too much for the flimsy I.V. poles she was provided.
"Today I got to experience the best IV pole ever. We have 14 children, 2 birth children and 12 adopted."
My heart broke. It wasn't the first note like this I'd received. Some years earlier, a foster mother from Texas had reached out, describing a similar situation. I'd reduced the Safepole down to our wholesale price but, coupled with shipping costs, it wasn't easily affordable--I wished there was more I could have done, but my hands were tied. I didn't want to turn yet another selfless mother away. The Extra Mile Desperate for a solution, I called Penn State to see if Thelma's story might resonate with one of their donors. The call didn't go well. They incredulously asked various versions of: "You want us to send one of our donors to you to purchase equipment for someone's home?" Yeah, it was a long shot. Surprisingly, a couple days later, Penn State called me. A woman named Lisa Shirk, whose now deceased son had been treated there for a congenital heart issue, had stopped by, explaining she wanted to do something more, something special, to honor her son's memory. Someone mentioned Safepole, and Shirk's eyes lit up. A social worker then took Shirk to meet Thelma Conklin and her baby in the ICU. Shirk welled up when she learned that the baby, adopted from India, shared the name of her son, Joshua. Shirk covered the wholesale cost and delivery of the Conklin's new Safepole. I then reconnected with the foster mother from Texas, Caroline Cheevers. She emailed back immediately:
"I am a R.N. and a stay at home mom. We felt that we needed to give back and adopting children with special needs was our calling. Is there any way that your company could donate several poles to our family?"
Although Shirk had never met Cheevers, she funded the donation. Cheevers emailed:
"We have 3 shaken baby toddlers home now, and could absolutely use this!!!"
"Here's a little info on the lil man who will be using [the Safepole]: T was a perfectly healthy infant....and at 6 mos old, a family member shook him violently and slammed his head against a hard surface. He is now age 4 and unable to move, talk or see, has daily seizures, is fed by a tube, and has a trach, uses oxygen and sometimes a machine to help him breathe. He will never function older than when the brain damage occurred. Our adoption should be final in November :) His new name is Tyler :)"
Why am I telling you this story? On one hand, it's a story about people helping people. An inspirational reminder that each of us can make a difference when we put thought into action. It rekindled my joy in doing what I do every day. And this would make for a lovely, feel-good ending.
But this is also a story about how hard it is to do good in this world. Certainly, the Conklins and the Cheevers are some of the most extraordinary people in this country, dedicating every day of their lives to helping others; and yet, it's hard for them to get basic medical equipment, such as an I.V. pole that won't tip over when a toddler tries to walk. Why does the system leave it to Lisa Shirk, who's grieving the loss of her son, to help? Or, to my small company that--despite the higher cost--chooses to manufacture in the U.S.A., even staffing an assembly line with disabled adults via a nonprofit organization. If we were a bigger company, we would gladly donate more Safepoles, but unfortunately we have our limits.
Our elected officials hold up manufacturing companies like mine as examples to be emulated, but there are no tax incentives, no sliding scale for FDA fees, and next to no incentives for hospitals to do business with us. Although the U.S. government is one of Safepole's customers, when it came to buying in bulk for V.A. hospitals, Safepole was passed over, even though competing companies neither manufactured their own product nor offered anything innovative, and most of the companies with Veteran-owned status were only distributors of foreign-supplied I.V. poles.
I'm not asking for a reward for being an entrepreneur or for running a socially-conscious company. But when I get calls from foster families or parents whose children are suffering from serious conditions such as Mitochondrial Disease, which requires constant infusions, I feel guilty for crossing my fingers that they're rich.
You would think this would be a great opportunity for donors to step in, and I've asked for help from corporations, from law firms, and from the Hollywood studios that use Safepole as a prop on their TV shows. So far, I've received no response. While trying to compete on a skewed playing field and relying on the charity and grace of individuals, I can't help but often think of the Conklins and the Cheevers--why can't we find a way to make it a little less hard to be selfless?