Fifteen years ago, before there was a Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace, Sona Mehring turned to social networking to get the word out about the challenging health condition of a close friend's new baby.
Brighid Swanson was born almost three months early to JoAnn Hardeggar and Darrin Swanson. Mehring, then a website designer in Eagan, Minn., decided to create a site to post progress reports about the baby.
During the baby's brief life - she died after nine days - "I had this incredible experience of being able to bring these caring social networks together for my friend and the baby," Mehring says.
Today, Brighid's legacy lives on in CaringBridge, the not-for-profit site Mehring launched in 1997 so others can easily create private Web pages during a medical crisis.
Adding a new service
Since its inception, more than 400,000 personal CaringBridge pages have been created. Every day, 500,000 people visit the site, which today celebrates its birthday and branches out with a new SupportPlanner feature.
The service gives users a place to "coordinate care and organize helpful tasks" - making and bringing meals, providing child care during appointment times, caring for pets, or doing household chores.
CaringBridge is also unveiling a redesigned website, which features a new "Amplifier Hub" to encourage and support volunteer efforts.
The site, which does not accept ads, is supported largely by individual donations, Mehring says.
About 8% of its budget comes from foundations and in-kind gifts.
CarePages, a similar health-focused social network that launched in 2000, does accept advertisements.
Both "provide a good service in that they enable the loved ones or caregiver to update the site once to tell a lot of people who care what's going on," says Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic's Center for Social Media.
"It really does help relieve a burden" of constantly having to call or text, he says.
Another area of support is available from a growing number of online health communities, such as PatientsLikeMe.com, the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network, MyAutismTeam.com and connect.mayoclinic.org, that allow people having a health challenge to reach out to others facing the same condition.
Finding 'prayer warriors'
Facebook users, of course, regularly share information and post the latest news about family and friends' health events.
Like many CaringBridge users, Natalie Bushaw of Eagan, Minn., often links her posts to her Facebook page to tap into her Facebook friends. It comes in handy, she says, when she needs "a lot of prayer warriors."
Bushaw's 8-year-old twins, Owen and Logan, were born with multiple congenital defects. Although both are doing much better now, there were tough times, including 18 surgeries between the two by the time they were 4 years old.
"We have family and friends who care so deeply about their well being," Bushaw says. "CaringBridge gives us a way to keep those people who are vested in our lives informed."
Michelle Healy, USA TODAY