“It was as if I had been placed in someone else’s body,” recalls Rachael Donalds after an accident left her with hyperactive thyroid levels. “I felt like my senses were not my own. A car driving by my window at a casual speed of 30 miles per hour sounded like a hurricane. Light from a just-opened window felt like shards of glass against my skin.”
Rachael’s sensory system and immune system were in conflict. Her thyroid was releasing antibodies attacking itself. Stress exasperated her symptoms.
“I needed an objective way to monitor my stress levels and understand environmental stimuli, thoughts, experiences, places that turned on my fight-or-flight response because I couldn’t rely on my body anymore,” says Rachael. “If I didn’t want my thyroid removed or to be on medication for the rest of my life I had to answer the question: How does my environment, my social interactions, my thoughts and emotions impact my stress level?”
To track her stress, Rachael developed a mobile app to monitor physiological stress using cell phone sensors. With each measurement, she recorded who she was with, what she was doing, and where she was. She learned which environments – music, movies, people, activities – increased or decreased her stress and she could change her behavior or setting accordingly. Using the app, she reversed her thyroid levels without medication.
Her app, Biosay, was accepted to the Venture Incubation Project at the Harvard Innovation Labs (Rachael earned a master’s degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health). It allows users to track their own data and to manage and share their experiences with others using the app. One key feature of the app is the ability to crowdsource data points to help users identify situations and experiences that increase or decrease stress.
“The war on stress, depression and disease will not be won by survival of the fittest where data is locked away and we can’t learn from one another, it will be won by collaboration,” explains Rachael. “As we endeavor to fight the war on stress, depression and disease our data must not be divided but united.”
Rachael’s recent TEDx talk entitled, Digital Determinants of Health can perhaps summarize this best. She talks about extending the model of the “collaborative economy” to a model of citizen crowdsourced health where data paired with Artificial Intelligence (AI) could result in a new model of collaborative health, providing unimaginable health insights and revealing the prescient ways we not only survive, but thrive.
Rachael is looking forward to attending What’s the Fix? and meeting other change-makers.
“What’s the Fix is a great example of how we can begin to democratize health care, informed not just by measures that were selected by a highly trained group, but by the experiences and voices of those who might not know what’s impossible,” she says. “I think there is something beautiful and healing in sharing and resonating with another person’s truth. The contexts may be different but I am looking forward to being inspired by people’s remarkable journeys.”