WASHINGTON, D.C. – Elizabeth Tikoyan admits her phone is never far from her hands.
“Most people are on their phones for hours a day,” she said.
Her phone served as a lifeline, of sorts – especially when she spent a chunk of her teenage years in the hospital.
“When I was in high school, all my friends were going to their homecomings and proms,” Tikoyan said, “and I was going to doctors and treatment centers and they didn't know what was wrong with me.”
Eventually, doctors figured out she had advanced Lyme disease. However, she never forgot the loneliness she experienced during that time.
“I thought, ‘how could we personalize a way to connect with people on a one-to-one basis and make a more personalized connection?’ That's what was missing for me,” she said.
That led Tikoyan to develop the Riley app.
It allows people to connect to one another based on similar medical conditions, like cancer, autoimmune diseases and, now, even the coronavirus – where self-quarantines could lead to people feeling isolated.
”Knowing that, other people out there are experiencing the same thing or going through the same experience, is really making them feel so much more empowered,” Tikoyan said.
Among those people is Kathryn White, who also has Lyme disease, along with complex PTSD. Her service dog, Constantine, is constantly at her side, but she’s also found kindred spirits in the Riley app.
“You start with, ‘hello, how are you?’ and then it quickly evolves into ‘how you doing today? How are you feeling?’” White said.
So far, she has messaged others with similar conditions, including a person who lives in Spain.
“One of the main things I was looking for was a friendship, was that support network, and I definitely found that with various people,” White said.
Users can put in as little or as much personal information as they want into the free app. The Riley team said security is a top priority: they monitor for inappropriate content and allow users to flag it as well.
“By connecting with each other, we can hopefully change the stigma and go out there and really feel empowered,” Tikoyan said.
Since launching in January, more than 700 people have joined the Riley app. The team behind it is now working with several hospital systems to expand the app’s reach.