A Patient with Connections
Michael O'Neil was in the hospital, battling cancer and feeling cut off from the world. That's when the Bethesda resident had his 'aha' moment.
As he lay in bed in one of the world’s top hospitals, surrounded by the latest in medical technology, newly diagnosed cancer patient Michael O’Neil couldn’t get over how low-tech his room’s television was.
At 9 a.m. every day, “a kid would come in my room and ask for $7 to turn on the TV,” O’Neil recalls. The problem was, O’Neil had been told to leave his wallet at home.
After he obtained the necessary cash, he wondered whether that television set was worth $7 a day. “When you turned it on, there were about nine staticky channels on it.”
Worst of all was when he asked a nurse one morning for information about his chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Oh, we have an education channel,” she said brightly, directing him to the TV and yet another disappointment: Instead of information about chemotherapy, O’Neil found a breast-feeding video.
That’s when he came up with the idea for GetWellNetwork, a Bethesda-based company that provides interactive educational and entertainment resources through televisions in patients’ hospital rooms.
“A lot of the soul of innovation comes from the most mundane experiences,” O’Neil says.
O’Neil was 28 and a student in the joint law and business degree program at Georgetown University when his back started bothering him in the spring of 1998. At first, Georgetown’s student health center blamed his pain on bulging discs from playing intramural flag football or maybe “law school ulcers” brought on by stress. But “my pain over a number of months began to kind of move and spread,” O’Neil says. “I had terrible night sweats, often waking in a pool of sweat.”
He sought answers at Georgetown University Medical Center. An endoscopy in April 1999 revealed a tumor the size of a tangerine in his stomach. “This could be stomach cancer, or it could be benign, but we need to find out quickly,” doctors told him.
O’Neil underwent surgery to remove the tumor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A week into what ended up being a nine-day hospital stay there, the pathology report on his tumor came back from the lab. The mass was neither stomach cancer nor benign.
O’Neil had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue, which is found throughout the body. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 70,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease last year, and about 19,000 died from it.
O’Neil’s main source of information about non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and its treatment came from the printouts that his fiancée, Wendy—a “104-pound Armenian firestorm,” as he describes her—would bring from her office in Tysons Corner in Virginia.
“When you’re back in your real world—at home, at school, at work—you have access to all this amazing technology,” O’Neil says. But in the hospital, “when you have to make all these critical decisions, you happen to have the least.”
He felt uninformed, out of control, helpless. And scared. But he also felt inspired. “I literally was drawing up the idea for this company while lying in my [hospital] bed,” O’Neil says.