Talk to someone. A friend, a neighbor, a stranger, a relative. Have a phone call, do a video chat, meet up and go for a distanced walk outside — find human interaction somehow.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kezia Fitzgerald.
Kezia Fitzgerald is a two time cancer survivor and co-founder of CareAline Products, which responded to the pandemic needs of healthcare workers by creating high-quality, reusable level 1 and 2 isolation gowns and additional PPE products. www.carealine.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
2011 was the year that changed everything. At age 26 I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and just a few months later, my then 11-month-old daughter, Saoirse, was diagnosed with stage 4 Neuroblastoma. We were consumed managing two chemo schedules, hospitals stays, surgeries and side effects. When Saoirse was diagnosed, she had a PICC line placed in her arm. The nurses made sure we understood the very serious risks that came with the line, but when we asked how to secure the line to reduce the risk of complications, they didn’t have a solution — instead telling us to use tape or a cut off sock. After she caught her line on her crib, leading to a chest x-ray to check if it was still placed properly, I decided to find a way to keep her safer and allow her to play. I designed a sleeve to keep her line off her skin and covered. Once it was on, she completely left the line alone. I used a similar design to create a chest wrap when Saoirse had a central line put in for additional treatment.
To our surprise, we quickly had other parents and patients asking if I could make one for them. They also were struggling with managing their lines. When the nurses and doctors also started asking, we knew for sure the problem went beyond ourselves.
After Saoirse’s death, my husband and I decided to continue her legacy and help other patients and families like ours. We started CareAline in 2012 to develop and manufacture these sleeves and wraps and provide them to hospitals as well as to patients and families.
Coming from an artist background, starting a medical device company was never something that I planned for. It’s been a huge learning experience for me to work on a project that is not always about creativity. But that hasn’t stopped me from seizing the opportunity to help others with what I have learned through my experiences as a cancer patient and cancer mom.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
We have been lucky that we have been able to have an impact on many people’s lives with our products, and been able to share our enthusiasm for patient led innovation all around the country. I think this story is one that stands out.
We were headed to our second major pitch competition in 2015 to present at SXSW for the first Impact Pediatric Health Competition. We had worked with a pitch coach, worked on the pitch deck, were learning a new presentation platform, drove with our not-yet 2-year-old from Massachusetts to Texas, stayed with family and friends on the way and when we got there, practiced and learned — it was right before the event. We had a dress rehearsal of our pitches in front of stand in judges and our assigned pitch coaches and mentors. I bombed. I forgot all my carefully honed content, I couldn’t keep straight which slide came next, I was slow, I said sections in the wrong order…I didn’t even finish before they cut me off when I was way over the 3-minute time. I had completely bombed. I was ready to give up. I was told that I just had to show up the next day and that we wouldn’t win, but it would be a good experience to practice on a stage.
At about 4 am, my toddler woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. I brought him into bed with me and he laid on top of me and finally fell conked out. I was stuck there — staring at the ceiling, not able to move or reach anything — and I started to recite my pitch over and over again in my head. I must have said it fifty or a hundred times. Each time gaining confidence in my pace, my wording, my emphasis. We got up early to get to the event on time and see the space where we were going to pitch. I was nervous but kept reciting it all in my head. We were the last team to present out of the 10 pitching. I watched as the others went. I listened to their amazing ideas. I kept reciting my own words in my head.
I got up there and I nailed it. We ended up winning the two first place prizes, and the Mark Cuban award. Oh, and sold 1000 units of our products during the Q&A. So, no matter how bad you think today is, tomorrow can always be a winner.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My own cancer relapsed in 2014, and I did a number of different therapies before undergoing a stem cell transplant in the fall of 2019. The experiences I had with my continued treatment allowed me to find other problems and challenges to try and solve for myself, that I knew would help others. Collaborating with clinicians, our team worked on creating new versions of our sleeves and wraps that work better for patients doing continuous intravenous infusions. We are working to get these out this year. This will allow so many more patients to have access to the safety and security our products provide both in the hospital and at home.
In addition, our team is working on a few other new products that are still in the development phase that will help create a better quality of life for patients in the hospital and at home. Safety and comfort are always our focus and we use our personal experiences as patients to dig deep into not only the medical benefits, but also how they impact the personal experience for the patient.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
We have had a lot of help during our journey with CareAline. When we started, we didn’t know anything about bringing a medical product to market. We are grateful to all those who helped along the way — especially the nurses and doctors who were willing to give us feedback very early on. We always take feedback — both positive and negative — seriously, as we can use that to work on and improve our products so that they continue to be helpful.
The first clinicians to use our products were brave enough to tell us what they really thought and make suggestions of ways we could improve upon our designs. This led us to make changes to our design that has in turn helped our sleeves and wraps work for even more patients that need them. Working to solve the problem of line management as completely as possible is something that we strive for with each of our products, and continuing to improve them as we learn more and as healthcare changes is important for CareAline as a company.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
Covid-19 has had a big impact on me this past year. When lockdowns began in Massachusetts, I was just coming to the end of my mandated 100 days of isolation after my stem cell transplant. I had already been social distancing for almost 4 months, and was ready to try and start getting back out into the world when restrictions set in. Immediately we had to juggle a 6-year-old at home trying to figure out how to learn in zoom meetings, I had to go alone to my treatment follow up appointments — and many of them turned into phone appointments. I couldn’t get things like physical therapy and mental health appointments — things that I really needed to be doing to work on my physical and mental recovery post transplant. It was messy and chaotic, but we had our previous experiences to fall back on.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have pushed through crisis before — specifically medical crisis — and we knew that we had to do what we do best — find a way to help. Working on making PPE wasn’t easy — we had to dig in and learn all the requirements, testing and benchmarks — but we pushed through because we couldn’t watch our healthcare partners struggle without helping them. They had done so much for us to help us survive, we had to return the favor.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
As women in business leadership, I think we all went full throttle at the beginning — even me who was hoping to ease back in more slowly post transplant. I’m not sure it was the right thing to do, but it is what I did, and I know that we have helped people because of it. One year in and my patience is waning, my drive is strained, I’m over hearing dinosaur noises all day from my 7-year-old, and I really need to paint my bedroom walls, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For me, that light is getting brighter the more I’m able to focus on what I love about working on CareAline — developing solutions to the problems patients and clinicians are facing in their day to day lives — COVID or not.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
My original advice would be to make a schedule and try and stick to it. But that got thrown out the window at about week 4. Keeping my expectations low has been a big help. For me it’s been about finding those moments to do something that feels productive — learning a new skill or two is a good start. I went back to bread baking (along with half of the country) and I picked up my violin again and worked earnestly toward learning to play. I had many ambitions that I said I would do, but those are the only two that stuck. That and going through all the piles and boxes of “stuff” and purging anything that we no longer needed.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Mostly I would say give yourself a pass. This is stressful for everyone. We just do the best we can each day and try and do the best the next. Dealing with a chronic or terminal illness prepares you for the constant changes that come with complex medical care. No matter how much you plan, it won’t happen the way you think. All you can do is make the next plan when the last one falls apart.
And have your own little space. Sometimes it’s important for everyone to go into their own corner for a while to decompress.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- This is temporary. Not as temporary as we would have liked, but we will be able to see the other side of this eventually.
- We are all in the same storm. Those in better boats are hopefully helping those whose ships have sunk.
- Ask for help if you need it. Having to ask for help is super hard. But suffering in silence is harder.
- Talk to someone. A friend, a neighbor, a stranger, a relative. Have a phone call, do a video chat, meet up and go for a distanced walk outside — find human interaction somehow.
- Help someone else. Even if it’s super small, helping someone else gives you a feeling of moving the needle. Buy someone a coffee, drag in your neighbor’s trash barrels, send someone a note…no act of kindness is too small.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Just listen. You aren’t going to fix their problem, and especially now they probably don’t want you to try, but they need to talk to someone and not have to defend how they are feeling. I have a lot of anxiety and PTSD related to my cancer and the loss of my daughter. Letting it out by saying it out loud is cathartic, as long as I don’t have to then justify my feelings. I just want people to know that I have big feelings for big reasons, and I don’t want to receive a “pity” face in return.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” — I think we have all learned that kindness is what is needed to move this world forward.
Be You. — I learned this through cancer. There will always be other’s ideas about how you should handle what life throws at you. But you won’t be happy unless you do what you need to do for yourself.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find out more about me at CareAline.com or email me at [email protected] and follow us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/CareAlineProducts/ or Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/carealineproducts/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Photo Credit: Erik Jacobs