Signing Her Grandmother's Do Not Resuscitate Order Led This Entrepreneur to Found a Health Tech Startup
Kelli Thomas-Drake intimately understands the frustration and powerlessness that plague the deeply emotional process of advocating for an ailing family member’s healthcare.
When her mother battled breast cancer, the Dallas entrepreneur struggled to help the retired psychiatrist keep track of her essential medical data. Somewhere buried within the messy, discombobulated trail of her mom’s health records were the very keys to the critical information needed to make the most informed care decisions possible.
“But the records were scattered across seven different yet equally baffling patient data portals on a single hospital campus,” Thomas-Drake told Entrepreneur at Circular Board’s recent female entrepreneurship summit in Houston.
It wasn’t the first time Thomas-Drake had trudged through an “exasperating, convoluted” tangle of confusing medical record data when assisting a loved one on the road to recovery. Years before her mother’s cancer diagnosis, her grandmother also had the disease.
At the time, Thomas-Drake was in her 20s and her grandmother was in her 90s. Pitching in as best as she could while working as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., she gave her grandmother weekly rides to chemotherapy sessions and other recurring appointments (including with a geriatric specialist, oncologist and neurologist).
“Eventually, from doctor’s offices to the ER and back, it turned into me having to constantly keep up with her medical records, her prescription log, her advanced directives, her medical power of attorney, all kinds of things I didn’t understand at the time,” she says.
Then came her grandmother’s Do Not Resuscitate form. “I called my mom to find out what that meant,” she says. “Once she told me, I completely freaked out. Maybe it’s the tree-hugger in me, but I thought, ‘This poses huge legal and philosophical questions and different moral boundaries that I just don’t feel comfortable handling myself.’”
With little time to fully weigh out the philosophical ramifications, she reluctantly filled out the piece of paper that was so much more than just a piece of paper. It was a legal binding order instructing medical professionals not to revive her grandmother should her heart cease to beat or should she stop breathing.
She says it was that pivotal moment, the second she nervously put pen to paper, that triggered the original spark for her business, which she bootstrapped herself. “I knew I had to do something," she says. "I had to make a change, to help people going through the same struggles.”
The last time she handed a packet from a purple accordion folder over to a hospital administrator was just before her grandmother passed away. “I put it in the admin’s hand and she looked at me and said, ‘Wow, we wish everybody was this together. You’re fine.’ Then I said, ‘You’re right. Everybody should be this together because it gets caregivers back to being human,’" she says. "I got back to concentrating on what matters -- on quality of care, my grandmother’s care -- without all the red tape and bureaucracy boundaries and logistics, the things that dehumanize healthcare. I got back to simple.”
That much-needed simplicity evolved into MyPurpleFolder, launched in August 2013, fittingly sloganed “the patient easy care button.”
The Dallas-based startup’s inaugural product by the same name is slated to officially go live on the Apple App Store and Google Play in August. It’s a HIPAA-compliant mobile app designed to empower users to access crucial healthcare-related data about themselves and their loved ones. The user-friendly tool also houses legal documents (including DNRs), doctor’s appointment schedules, medical diagnostics records and images and health insurance and prescription information. Staying true to her vision, Thomas-Drake achieved her goal of enabling users to neatly house and organize them all in one portable place.
“So no more filling out form after form at the doctor’s office,” Thomas-Drake says. “You are at the heart of your own information and in control of it.” The same goes for loved ones who entrust you with their care. “Patient caregivers and family member can also use the app, too, to be empowered, to do their best advocating for family members in need.”
In addition to discussing her journey from caregiver to entrepreneur, Thomas-Drake also shared several other interesting insights with us during a lively Q&A session. Her responses were edited for length and clarity.
What’s the biggest obstacle you face?
“Being less than 1 percent of the tech industry as a female. On top of that, I’m usually the only African-American female in a technology circle, even if there are other females in the room.
It’s difficult when men overlook me in a business setting, when I need to be taken seriously, but they’d rather deal with someone else who has the same parts as they do. When I say something in a room, it’s not heard until a man says it, almost in the same verbiage I did say it in or would have said it in. The homosocial aspects of life that are exclusive to men: the steam room, the golf club, the cigar rooms, the drinking whisky late at night, the things that most women don’t and won’t do. Things we don’t have access to, the insider boys’ club, the things that will get us cut out of a business negotiation because we’re the wrong gender.”
How do you stay focused?
“By spending an incredible amount of time creating a vision board. I create them on stretched linen. I cut out different magazine clippings that resonate and I include different inspiring trinkets and put all of those on the board. I pass by it every day and I’m able to focus on different key aspects of my life, on my goals.”
Who has influenced you the most in terms of how you approach your business?
“My mother. She’s helped me have a moral compass and have a vision. She’s helped me believe in myself when I don’t even have anything left for myself.”
What’s the best advice you ever took?
“Do the right thing for the right reasons, even and especially when no one’s looking, and you’ll be fine.”
What song motivates you?
“The original Rocky movie theme music. (Thomas-Drake laughs a hearty chuckle, then starts singing the song.) That’s my ringtone! I’m not kidding. Rocky was an underdog. He was little and scrappy. People didn’t believe in him at first. He didn’t necessarily think he could win either, but he never quit. He ran up those iconic museum stairs and he put his hands up even before he won. He had heart.
Rocky makes me think that every time I get hit in the gut, I’ve got to up and keep going. It’s not how you get knocked down, it’s how you deal with it.”
What’s your top productivity tip?
“Make sure that you have a high standard for yourself first. Know yourself. Be comfortable in your own skin first and that will help you get things done because you won’t be swayed or deterred by what other people say or do or how they think about me. That will keep you centered and focused and producing with your own drive.”
What are some apps you can’t live without?
“MyFitnessPal. It keeps me on a rather short leash with regards to what I eat, with regards to discipline. I log everything I eat into it every day. It helps me track all of my intake, water-wise and consumption-wise.
I also can’t live without the news app from the Associated Press, AP Mobile. As a business owner, it’s important to get international and domestic perspective in and out of my industry to stay on top of what’s going on.”
How do you prevent burnout?
“I’m my own cheerleader. I have my own chutzpah, because if I don’t -- if I don’t have my own self-motivation and drive, if I don’t take care of me first -- then I don’t have anything to share with the world. I’m there for me first. Hey, sometimes you have to just push back from the table so that you can just go eat a cupcake by yourself, or walk the lake, or whatever fills your soul and refuels you. We have to retrain our brains that it is not selfish to put yourself first. It’s essential.”
Kim Lachance Shandrow is the former West Coast editor at Entrepreneur.com. Previously, she was a commerce columnist at Los Angeles CityBeat, a news producer at MSNBC and KNBC in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for Government Technology magazine, LA Yoga magazine, the Lowell Sun newspaper, HealthCentral.com, PsychCentral.com and the former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Coop. Follow her on Twitter at @Lashandrow. You can also follow her on Facebook here.