Life hero: Dale Elliott, Director, I’m Thinking of You – a website for carers and their networks of family and friends.
A motorcycle accident left commercial pilot Dale Elliott a paraplegic. The road to recovery, he discovered, was as difficult a journey for his family and friends as it was for him. So Dale launched I’m Thinking Of You, a web-based tool to build ‘care zones’ around people who have serious illnesses, and those who love and support them.
Before my accident, I was probably the happiest I’d been in my whole life. A week before my accident I was flying a plane from Adelaide to Melbourne at night. On taking off from Adelaide’s main runway, I did a turn to the left and looked down at all the lovely city lights.
I was captain of this plane, had reached my dream of being a commercial pilot, and just went “Yee-ha!”, like I’d touched the sky. Also, I’d just bought my dream car, I was into skydiving, snowboarding, beach volleyball, and indoor cricket…
When everything changes…
When I came off my motorbike and hit the ground, I landed on my back and couldn’t move. I reached down and felt my chest and my stomach with my left hand, then put my left hand on my left leg and couldn’t feel it. After leaving school I’d gone into the army, so I knew a bit of first aid and was sure I’d broken my spine. At the hospital, I learned I’d broken both my back and collarbone.
In just a moment, I had gone from being a singing, dancing, karaoke king and pilot to being a paraplegic – all I had was my left hand. As I lay there, my first thought was, “I’m going to have to tell my boss I can’t fly on Monday.” Next, I thought, “My wife is going to be here any minute.” Our house was just 200 meters along the road. That’s when it hit me that this was going to be really bad.
The ripple effect
My life had changed forever. I knew I’d never fly again, and it sucked my soul out to look down and see a wheelchair. I didn’t want to feel that so started trying to self-counsel, to come up with solutions. The sense of loss was just the worst feeling you can ever imagine. I was looking down at my legs and feeling really sorry for them, they’d always done a great job and now they were just lifeless.
The care I received in the hospital was fantastic, but support for my family and friends wasn’t. Hospitals will tell you that it’s not their mission to care for all of those people – it would cost them millions each year if they counseled everyone. This doesn’t mean that they don’t consider this important – they just have a limited budget and have to prioritize their funds.
In the months that followed, as I got out of the hospital and started re-assimilating with my family and friends, I became aware of what the people around me were going through because of my trauma. That’s when I started to become aware of the ripple effect of my injury.
My wife went into very bad depression, losing 12 kilos in the first two weeks. She was only a size 10 to start with. She looked like death warmed up, but I couldn’t help. I asked my social workers whether they could offer any assistance to my wife, but they didn’t have the resources. No one else in my family could do it as they were all in much the same position. Also during this time, one friend had a dreadful car accident and another died from leukemia. I saw the stress and depression that it caused to their family and friends.
I went back to work as a manager in the aviation industry, but it was hard on me being in the office, organizing other pilots, and listening to them complaining because I really liked flying. I’d say, “Listen, mate, I’d give anything to be up there on that flight you just did,” and realized my passion for aviation was slowly withering away. I found myself asking the universe, “I’m 27, I’ve got a lot of energy. What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
Around this time, my wife and I went to a party out in the country and, on the way, passed an accident. Someone had been killed and Emergency Services was there. When we got to the party, my wife said, “I can’t get out of the car, Dale. What if it’s a guest from the party? I can’t be there.” She was having flashbacks to my accident – and I was too.
Waking to a new dream
The next day, what had happened played on my mind. I felt that I had experience and skills to share, and had been preparing myself to go into counseling mode if someone from the party had died or been badly hurt. Although the victim wasn’t anyone from the party, someone’s family was going through that grief right now. I started getting this glow in my soul, “Hey Dale, you’re onto something here. You’re worrying about something that’s good to be worried about.”
I thought, well, what do we all use to communicate? Could I have run around with a pen last night and got everyone’s names and phone numbers? Then I thought, “No, you’d use the net for that, or mobile phones…” I said to my wife, “Imagine if all you had to do was get on the net and write in a couple of quick comments, like, ‘Dale got into the wheelchair by himself for the first time today, he was absolutely rapt’ to send as an SMS or email?” When she replied, “that would be great,” I knew that I’d found what I wanted to do next.
I searched the internet for hours, Googling ‘online support’, and couldn’t find a service like this anywhere. I knew at this point that I’d found my new mission in life.
Make the dream happen
Where to begin? I knew nothing about building a website or anything about IT. I didn’t know about domain names, servers, what a web developer looked like, or what coding and hosting options even meant… I was a pilot and only used the net to get weather reports – that was it.
I had to pull together a huge amount of information very quickly and learn a hell of a lot. I’m still learning, every day. I had a budget of $80,000 to build and launch the site worldwide with a big campaign and plenty of media exposure. I sat down and wrote a business plan, and set aside about $50,000 to build the website and do all the research.
Work with the experts
When I first went and sat down with web development companies, they all looked around at each other wondering how the hell they were going to build this thing – they’d never heard of anything like it before. I wanted the site to be fully interactive, very secure, and easy to use. If someone got a bit stroppy and said things they shouldn’t, comments could be added or deleted and, if necessary, people could be banned from the Care Zone. Then they wondered how the SMS function would work – how they could send a message to a specific, private Care Zone site.
All this was a massive amount to digest. I’m not very patient, so I’d say, “Guys, you can work it out. I’m going to go out and start spreading the message, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a solution on the way and you’ll have it in a few months.’”
I’d looked at things relevant in my life and thought, you can build a house in six months, so you should be able to build a website in a couple. Little did I know it’d take a bit longer than that. No one was correcting me and I was none the wiser: I think they were trying not to dampen my enthusiasm.
Since then, my vision for the organization has grown, and we know how important it is to keep getting this out there. I mean my whole life, every minute of the day, I’m thinking about the I’m Thinking Of You website.
It’s just amazing the support you get when you go out there and tell people what you’re doing. There’s no way I can take my foot off the pedal now. I keep coming back feeling more and more empowered, and getting an ever-larger team of people to help. The only thing that’s going to stop it or slow it is lack of publicity.
Build a gung-ho team
I reckon out of every 50 people who are gung-ho to help, I probably get a core group of five. I drive a pretty tight ship and am quite demanding, but I really want to get this out. When I speak to people who say, “If only I knew about this three months ago,” I think, “But it was up and running.” It rips my heart out thinking, “If only you’d known about the site, things would have made things much easier for you.” I need to find people who share my passion for getting the message out and make a little change in their life. My mum works really hard on the website. When I told her about it, she quit her well-paid job managing a chiropractic clinic to come and work here full-time – for next-to-nothing.
The financial situation makes it tough on our family at the moment, but my wife knows deep down that it’s really worthwhile. She sees emails like one I got recently from a lung transplant patient in Queensland, saying, “I’ve come across your website and it’s been an absolute godsend.”
A little money well spent
The lung transplant patient is a woman in her 30s and has twins who are just 18 months old. Her biggest fear is that when she gets the transplant call – or if she doesn’t make it – things in her life aren’t going to be taken care of properly.
She has her bag ready at the front door. When she leaves, all she needs to do is make a note on her Care Zone about what’s happened. All her friends and family are on the site, so they will know as soon as anything happens.
If her sister uses the site to SMS everyone in the Care Zone, it costs just 25 cents to send and costs everyone else $1.50 to receive it. That’s $1.50 well spent because it enables you to take immediate action. For example, family and friends can decide that “I’m going onto the Care Zone now to see what jobs that need to be done for my friend. I can allocate some to myself and really help this family as much as I can.”
Plan for expansion
The next thing I want for I’m Thinking Of You is to bring in something that’s making the web developers’ heads spin. It’s a thing called the ‘care factor rating,’ which means that when you go to someone’s Care Zone and participate, others can see what you’re doing and where you’re from.
If you’re at a friend’s Care Zone, the friend’s relatives may want to know who you are and how you know that person. It’ll all be on the Care Zone. We’re also meshing the service with Google Earth, so you can zoom in on your local area and find both your house and the closest Care markers. You can add jobs so that people in any local community can help out locally. A lot of people want to help out, but they don’t know where to go. I want to start a culture of caring: that’s my mission statement. #
I’m thinking of… this website
imthinkingofyou.com.au is an interactive communication tool that links family, friends, and communities in times of need. I’m Thinking Of You was established to meet the needs of thousands of people who require support when facing trauma. A team of passionate and committed people has combined their skills with innovative technology to create a unique tool that aims to reach, inspire and deliver a level of support that nurtures those most in need. Each ‘Care Zone’ on the site is a secure, password-protected personalized web page specifically created for a person in need. It’s a place where friends and family can post information and organize support, saving time and reducing stress.