The Real Iron Lady

January 31st, 2019

Last week our team experienced a near tragedy. We felt it would be appropriate to share the experience with our friends, supporters, and business contacts. Susan Ruhlin’s blog below recounts what happened.

In hindsight, there were signs that something wasn’t right with Caryl, our co-founder, on Thursday. But as is typical for a busy startup, we wear a lot of hats and can get easily bogged down with projects. Anyway, had we been more observant, we might have noticed that Caryl didn’t show up to play her mid-morning pool game with Trevor, our Chief Science Officer. We also might have noticed that she was quieter than usual, not engaging in vigorous debate over actor/critic models or challenging our research scientists’ assumptions the way she usually does. It was only later when Kay, our CEO, questioned her about a proposal that we noticed she was, quite literally, at a loss for words. Something was wrong, really wrong. A stroke? An aneurysm? The flu?

Kay called an ambulance and both she and Alex (one of our developers and Caryl’s son) accompanied her to the hospital. After they left, and an eerie quiet blanketed our office. The striking thing was that we had been in the midst of an incredible flurry of activity. Both Kay and Caryl were scheduled to depart for Los Angeles to attend events at the Clean Tech Open in two days. We had been all-hands-on-deck to finish the User Interface for the hardware we planned to demo at the CTO and had been furiously working to finish up marketing collaterals. What just happened? Will she be okay? How can we help?

Later that night Kay called to tell us the diagnosis- a brain tumor. Those two words hit us hard, like a ton of bricks. Kay said they were fortunate that the best neurosurgeon was on call. She further advised us that the surgery would be the following day and that the doctor indicated it would be straight forward and that she might even be back to work in a couple of weeks. The surgery was performed as planned and was quicker than expected with no complications. We were extremely relieved. That same day we met as a team to discuss how to best address the challenge of having a key team member suddenly out of commission. We decided to send our Board Chairman, Don Gooding, and Director of Sales, Michael Horgan, to California and our technical team reshuffled their projects to make sure our key deadlines were met, in other words- we didn’t miss a beat.

On Monday morning, the office was quiet. Don and Michael were off to California and Kay, we assumed, was at the hospital. We settled into our typical morning routine. Suddenly, at about 9:15, the front door opened. It must be Kay back from the hospital we thought. It was indeed Kay, but right behind her was Caryl. We were shocked, happy and maybe even a bit confused. Kay said that she suspected Caryl was the first patient ever to be directly discharged from the ICU. More astonishingly, was the fact that she had actually been discharged on Sunday, less than 48 hours post op! We jokingly asked her if she could speak another language or play the cello and she replied that no, unfortunately, she hadn’t gained any new skills. After greeting us, she walked upstairs, sat down at her desk and went back to work. Forty-five minutes later, she was playing pool as though the brain surgery had been a mere blip on her radar screen. Caryl continues to inspire us, and as a result of this experience, we inspired ourselves as well.