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Illness Inspired These Entrepreneurs

Good ideas for ventures come from many places—even a health crisis


by Sarah Mahoney

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Amy Ohm took a scary route to business success, via one of the most menacing words heard in medicine: Melanoma. “I had put off seeing the doctor about a small mole on my back for a few months,” she recalls of the bombshell a decade ago, which revealed she had stage 3 skin cancer. “I didn’t even know what melanoma was.”

Early internet searches terrified her, and in the months that followed, she wanted to learn as much as possible—and connect with others. But she wanted it to be private, too. “I was in sales, and I didn’t want everyone to know what I was going through.” So with her husband, a software developer, she started the, a private online community for people with chronic illnesses.

Behind the firewall of the site, members can do searches without being traced, and connect privately with people who share their diagnoses. The site earns money from advertisers eager to connect with this audience. “When you are undergoing dialysis, for instance, it’s nice to know that a company makes clothing just to make that easier for you,” she says.

But mostly, the site delivers its medicine in the form of friends, says Ohm, now 44, who lives in Austin, Texas. “Even if you have the most supportive spouse and family in the world, you still need to connect with people who truly understand what you’re going through. And I’m so happy we’ve found a way to link people to thousands of others who are in the same boat.”

Offering Help He Couldn’t Find

Drew Dunlop, 49, also hopes to connect the dots between his own illness and helping others. The Nashville radio newscaster spent years in a debilitating battle with ulcerative colitis, an irritable bowel disorder. Although he had periods of remission, it came back in full force in 2006, causing intense pain, and severe chills from loss of blood. He underwent 11 surgeries in three years. Periodically, his treatment would include “gut rest,” when he was fed by tubes, for as long as four and half months, including 98 days in a hospital. “When I was home, I had an IV pump in a tote bag I could carry around, which would run at night as well.”

After all that, he recalls, “the emotional toll caught up with me. I came out of the hospital totally impoverished, with just a few dollars, and no job. My rent was due, I had no food and only 10 days of medical supplies for my ostomy.”

Dunlop survived by reaching out to charities for help with bills, and even money for groceries. “I searched frantically for medical supplies, and found one company offering 90 days of free products for people who were struggling.”

From there, Dunlop found his way back to school, working in radio, with a side job caring for special-needs kids. Next, he earned his MBA at Vanderbilt University, financed with part-time work at the radio station and student loans. At first, he had no intention of working in health care. “I wanted to put the health problems far behind me, including anything that would draw me back into that world.” But then he reconsidered. “I realized the residual effects of that ordeal were still affecting my life.” So he is pitching investors for a company that will find affordable ostomy products. “I want people to have services I didn’t have when I was ill,” he says.

From Nurse to Entrepreneur

On July 4, 2008, David Sandhu was driving his car home from the beach near his home in Cypress, California, when he was struck by a van. The crash fractured his lumbar vertebrae, leaving him with mild traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. In the painful and difficult months of rehab, Sandhu, a registered nurse who was working as a catastrophic case manager for an insurance company, learned firsthand how frustrating it can be for patients, who have to focus not just on recovering, but on dealing with doctors, hospitals and insurance.

When spine fusion surgery allowed him to work again, he became a patient advocate, helping people navigate the complex system. “I loved it, and spent a year and half finding and working with patients,” he says. Alas, patient advocacy isn’t a money-maker, “at least not yet,” he says. “But I do believe there is a trend toward both families and insurance companies being more willing to add advocacy services.”

A business coach introduced Sandhu, who is married with two children, to the Nurse Next Door franchise, a home health care agency filling in gaps of care for the elderly. (Start-up costs range from $135,000 to $180,000.) Opening a franchise draws on many aspect of his life—growing up with his grandmother in India, his varied training as a nurse and case manager, and the empathy he gained from his own long, slow recovery. “It’s about caring, not just healthcare,” he says. “Those are the core values of this business, and it fits so well with my own beliefs. We deliver an experience of home healthcare with a touch of advocacy, that’s unexpected and really meaningful.”

All three entrepreneurs say helping others provides a major dose of start-up mojo. “Every day is a new possibility  to help someone in need,” says Ohm. “Chronic illness are on the rise, and people need treatment. But mostly, they need people—and we have an opportunity of  a lifetime.”

Photo credits: Group of Hands: Matthew Fox/Getty,,Womans Hands: Liam Norris/Cultura/Getty,Mens Hands: Brand X/Getty