Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Saoirse Fitzgerald was less than a year old when doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital found a cancerous tumor in her stomach and started her treatment, delivering medicine through a line placed into her arm.
The infant tugged and chewed on the tube, which became tangled in her crib and began to pull out of the tiny arm, risking infection and adding to heartache of her parents, Mike and Kezia Fitzgerald. Then Kezia had an idea: With spare fabric, she made a pink-and-white-striped sleeve with a slit and a pocket that kept the tube off her daughter’s skin and secured the line so it wouldn’t pull out.
She put the tight fabric sleeve onto her daughter, and slipped the line through the slit. The baby stopped struggling.
“She no longer cared it was there,” said Kezia, 30.
Saoirse died a few months later, in December 2011,
but from this sad story emerged a simple product that is making it easier and more comfortable for thousands of children around the world to undergo treatment for cancer and other diseases. The Fitzgeralds, of Danvers, channeled their grief and launched a company, called CareAline, which makes sleeves and wraps for tubes that enter the arms and chests of sick children.
“This was not even supposed to be a company,” said Mike Fitzgerald, 46. “We were supposed to treat our daughter, and we’d live a happy life. But I kept remembering that this was going to help other kids.”
CareAline is one of three finalists in a competition hosted by Boston Children’s Hospital that aims to support innovation and the development of new products for pediatrics. The competition, modeled after the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” concludes Friday when the winner of the $30,000 prize is selected by a panel of venture capitalists, physicians, researchers, and medical device executives.
The other two finalists are the HubScrub, an invention that aims to curb bloodstream infections from central-line catheters, and Kurbo Health, a weight-loss program for children and teens.
The Fitzgeralds realized that Kezia’s sleeve had potential not long after they put it on their daughter. Within two days, about 10 parents had approached them, asking where they could get one.
Their children, also undergoing treatment at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, were experiencing the same problems.
Without hesitation, Kezia sewed a batch of the tiny cotton sleeves. Then, when Saoirse died, the Fitzgeralds faced a decision: Would they continue making the sleeves for other children?
The Fitzgeralds launched their company in October 2012, contracting production to Precision Sportswear, a Fall River company. In addition to the sleeve, used with lines in arms, they developed a wrap to make the lines that enter the chest more comfortable for patients.
Both come in adult sizes, as well.
CareAline, heaquartered in the Fitzgeralds’ Danvers home, began selling products last year, with the sleeves retailing for $19.95 and the wraps for $24.95. Since then, they’ve sold several thousand wraps and sleeves around the world. They have distributors in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union.
But the company’s growth also provides a constant reminder of their daughter. The Fitzgeralds admit their emotions have remained raw.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” said Mike Fitzgerald. “But then I look at my daughter’s picture, and think of all those kids that we help.”
The Fitzgeralds say that the CareAline sleeve and wrap are the only products of their kind on the market. Some sleeves cover the lines, but do not keep them off the skin, they said. Other wraps on the market are bulky, uncomfortable, and difficult to wash.
Mary Cogan, a nurse practitioner who cared for Saoirse Fitzgerald, said caregivers often struggle to keep the lines clean and from tangling. The wrap helped Cogan quickly access that line and treat Saoirse while she was sleeping.
“It keeps them secure, cleaner, and makes it easier to find the line,” she said. “I really haven’t seen anything like this before.”
Nicole Santiago of Colorado Springs said her 13-month old son, Cory, had previously ripped out his line as he was treated for a disease that prevents his intestines from absorbing nutrients. But Santiago, 24, said CareAline keeps Cory from putting the line in his mouth or pulling on it.
Bethany Krieger of Lexington, Ala., ordered CareAline after her 7-year-old, Malaki, repeatedly scratched and infected his line. Now he doesn’t touch the line. Before he got the sleeve, Krieger said, Malaki, who is being treated for an immune disease. was embarrassed to go out in public because the tube sticking out of his skin was visible. But now he can hide the tube, thanks to a recently introduced product improvement: a privacy cover.
The cover is an extra layer of fabric that patients can pull over the sleeve to keep the line from being exposed.
“People would stare because they could see something coming out of him, and now you can’t see anything,” said Krieger, 25, adding, “He won’ t go without it. He sleeps in it.”
The Children’s Hospital competition comes at a important time for CareAline, which is approaching profitability but is not quite there. The company has one outside investor.
Today, the Fitzgeralds manage the company full time while caring for their son, Lochlan, born 15 months ago. Kezia Fitzgerald, who underwent chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma while her daughter was sick, has since relapsed and is pursuing alternative treatments.
As they plan their company’s future, Saoirse and her short life are never far from their thoughts, they say.
“She’s no longer here,” Kezia Fitzgerald said. “But at least the products are getting somewhere, to the people that need them.”
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