On Jan. 4, just after returning to work from the holidays, 26-year-old Christopher Breene suddenly got really, really dizzy.
Breene went to the hospital, where doctors discovered that every time he would sit or stand up his heart rate went to double its normal rate. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t know why. At the time Breene was working in a relatively new job as community manager at Shaw-based iStrategyLabs (he’d started there in July 2015), and was part of the board working to help organize DC Tech Meetup. He was busy, he was driven and he didn’t have time to be sick. But over the course of the next three months, that’s exactly what his body demanded.
In total Breene was hospitalized 12 times and “went to like 15 different specialists” until, finally, the National Institute of Health offered a diagnosis — he had Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS.
POTS, according to the advocacy and awareness group Dysautonomia International, is a form of dysautonomia associated with abnormal spikes in heart rate on standing. POTS is estimated to affect 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 Americans, but doctors don’t know a whole lot about what causes it.
New diagnosis in hand, Breene was sent home to rest. But two weeks later there was something new — in addition to POTS, his doctors found, Breene suffers from Celiac Disease. Celiac, an autoimmune disorder, is much more readily understood by the medical community. Both POTS and celiac, though, require radical shifts in lifestyle.
So after more than three months of hospital visits, Breene set about figuring out how to adjust. For the POTS he started exercising more, and got a Fitbit to measure his steps per day. Breene told Technical.ly he competes with friends and colleagues on these numbers — “my competitive spirit helped out big time.” More recently, Pokémon Go has provided an extra impetus to get up and about.
He also drinks a lot of water every day (three liters), and takes some meds.
Managing the celiac, on the other hand, is pretty straight forward: cut out all gluten. Of course, even though more and more restaurants and brands provide gluten-free options, this can be easier said than done. Breene told Technical.ly he uses tech, in the form of two main apps, to help him stay gluten-free.
The first app, Find Me Gluten Free, is sort of like Yelp for celiacs. Breene said its helpful in figuring out which businesses will take the disease seriously. His favorite gluten-free find in D.C.? It’s got to be Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan, which he calls “phenomenal.”
The second app is called ipiit — it’s a barcode scanner for a variety of allergies, including celiac. “I’m not going to give up good food just because I have a stupid disease,” Breene said. Thankfully, tech helps him in this goal.
Technology has also helped him connect with other people facing the same challenges. For example, he’s part of a 16,000 member-strong Facebook group dedicated to POTS. Posts about his struggles on his personal Facebook page, too, have helped demonstrate how many of his team members at ISL, friends and family members are rooting for him.
Because of all this support and helpful tech, Breene is now out of bed and back on his feet. It’s been almost four months since April 19, his last day in the hospital. However, he’s been hesitant to open up more publicly about his journey.
“I haven’t really opened up about it because it [sickness] is a sign of weakness for a lot of people,” Breene told Technical.ly.
But he doesn’t want it to be that way. So he’s taking it upon himself to share his story, and to impress upon others that yes, it’s possible to be an entrepreneur and have a disease. Yes, it’s difficult to go from being someone who is super active and competitive and driven to being bedridden, but it happens and learning to adjust makes you strong, not weak.
“It’s kinda a weird, crazy story and I don’t know what the next chapter will be,” Breene said. But he’s ready to be transparent.
Part of the next chapter was revealed yesterday, when Breene announced that he’ll be leaving ISL, “amicably,” on Sept. 1. The company and team, he said, was incredibly supportive of him during the lows of his illness, but it is time for a new adventure. Breene doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be working on next, but told Technical.ly it “will likely be digital consulting” for other #dctech startups.
He’ll also remain involved in DC Tech Meetup, where he’s hosting his first meetup in September. The edition is dedicated to political tech, and Breene couldn’t be more excited to take the stage.
Be there, say hi. After such a crazy year, Breene will almost certainly have a story or two to share.