Dustin Freckleton was three weeks away from his 25th birthday when, on a hot Houston day in 2009, he arose from his bed and walked to the bathroom. He had a headache, but headaches were becoming increasingly common for the University of Texas-Houston first-year medical school student.
He attributed their frequency to 16-hour study days spent in dark corners of the library with “big books and small fonts.” But when he slammed into the door frame, Freckleton realized this headache was not like the others.
Determined to get moving, Freckleton grabbed a bottle of Tylenol and discovered he couldn’t read the label. He then recognized he was standing on the side of his foot instead of the bottom. With some effort, he straightened his foot but soon felt a sensation like warm water pouring perfectly over just one half of his body.
Freckleton was losing mobility and stumbled back into bed. He was soon unable to wiggle a finger or toe on one side of his body. The left side was paralyzed.
He recognized the warning signs. He was having a stroke.
Eight years later, Freckleton says the experience changed his life for the good. After he learned the cause of the stroke, Freckleton used the information to alter his career path. Recently, he developed a device that can prevent others from suffering strokes caused by dehydration.
He put it on Kickstarter to raise funds for development, with a campaign goal of $50,000. It raised $1.2 million.
“In retrospect, it’s easy to say I feel incredibly fortunate to have had those experiences, but the truth be told, I really do,” Freckleton said. “I would not be where I am today had those series of unfortunate events not occurred and in a very real way I have seen that shaping, guiding hand in my life, helping to put me where I am now, providing me the experiences that I have had."
Freckleton is the first child of parents who were both in the medical field, his father a radiologist and his mother an occupational therapist. He remembers his dad coming home after working long hours and, instead of complaining, simply saying, “I saved a life.” He remembers his mom choosing to stay home with her children but teaching him how to prioritize the most important things in life.
Their examples helped him develop a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life, but this vision became blurry in the wake of his stroke.
“Since high school, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said Freckleton, who graduated from Health Careers High School in San Antonio, Texas, and now lives in Austin. “I had worked for it, I had hoped for it, I had prayed for it, I had dreamed for it and all of a sudden in this single moment I felt it all evaporating, all vanishing in front of me, and that was completely terrifying.”
Freckleton had spent much of his time the week before his stroke helping with a community service effort. After the stroke, he didn't know if he would be able to take care of himself or have a family. He was in a state of “utter terror.”
There are large parts of that day that Freckleton, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, doesn’t remember. But he does remember calling his roommate into the room and asking him to make two calls, one to 911 and the other to his father. Then, with his father on the phone, he asked his roommate, who shared his LDS faith, to give him a priesthood blessing.
“I remember laying there staring at the ceiling in a state of complete agitation and being promised in that blessing that I would completely recover without any residual deficiencies,” Freckleton said. “And I thought to myself at the time, ‘How can you know that?’ But the peace that came with that was unmistakable and I knew it was true. And after that moment the fear that I had had before was matched only by the peace that I felt afterwards. Knowing basically the end from the beginning, knowing that all of this was happening and in the end it would all work itself out and I would be just fine.”
Doctors would eventually attribute Freckleton’s stroke to dehydration. It turned out that the Houston heat during the hurricane cleanup caused Freckleton to become severely dehydrated, which restricted his circulation, and a clot had formed overnight. In the morning, that “clot became mechanically dislodged and broke off and shot off” to Freckleton’s brain, where it lodged and initiated the 45 seconds of drain Freckleton felt.
Within six months, Freckleton regained full strength. He said at this point, he has had no functional deficit.
He graduated from medical school in 2013 with an MBA, in addition to his medical degree, having completed a six-year program in five years.
After graduation, Freckleton faced a big decision, one that was influenced by a conversation with the dean of admissions at the University of Texas.
Paraphrasing, Freckleton said the dean told him that she wanted to impress upon him the trust patients place on their medical doctor, despite having no prior contact with them.
“They will lay themselves on the table in front of you and say, 'Doctor, I am sick. Do whatever it takes.' In that moment you will have the opportunity to lay hands on that person and heal them,” Freckleton remembers her saying.
The woman was not a member of the LDS Church, but her use of the phrase “lay hands on that person and heal them” made an impression on Freckleton.
Upon graduating, Freckleton knew he could begin practicing medicine in a traditional way, but also knew that his stroke uniquely qualified and informed him to use his medical degree and his MBA in an untraditional way.
His idea? Create a technology to measure a person's hydration.
He recruited and built a team of medical doctors, sports scientists and medical-device engineers. Together, over the course of more than four years, they worked to create a wearable hydration monitor that they hope will prevent others from suffering events similar to what Freckleton experienced.
The device, which they call the “LVL Hydration Monitor,” employs “infrared light to measure water in your blood telling you when you need to drink to feel your best,” according to the product’s website.
“As a physician, I would have an opportunity in a microcosm to, on a patient-by-patient basis, change lives,” Freckleton said. “I see an opportunity through what we’re doing here as a company to do that on a macro level, to be able to help people experience greater health and well-being, preventing hospitalization and these negative encounters in the first place, and that really is the driving force behind what I do now.”
Still, he says the device will do much more than prevent strokes caused by dehydration. According to National Geographic, an “average adult’s body is 60 to 70 percent water.”
“That is a huge amount, more than anything else in our body, so even small variations of hydration status of 1 or 2 percent can have a tremendous impact on everything about us — from exercise ability to sleep quality to mood and cognition to weight loss to medical and disease management,” Freckleton, who has now been featured by Fortune and Wareable, said.
In addition to tracking hydration, the LVL also has the same functionality as other popular fitness bands and devices, tracking heart rate, activity such as steps, calories burned and sleep.
Now a husband and father of three girls, Freckleton has relied on the example of his father to achieve work-life balance.
He recalls his dad having 4 a.m. rounds at work, working late some evenings and frequently being on call through the night, but he remembers noticing, even as a child, that his father spent more time with him and his friends than his friends’ fathers ever spent with them.
“When he came home he was Dad and he was nothing else,” Freckleton said. “And I learned that when you don’t have that quantity of time that you would like, you’ve got to make up for it with quality time.”
He also recalls the example of a medical colleague who once told him, “I don’t have a single hobby but you know what I do a lot? I golf and I go to the ballet. My son loves golf. I hate it but my son loves it and so, on a weekly basis, we go golfing. I don’t really care for the ballet but my daughter loves it and so we have season tickets and we go.”
“Those examples to me of incredibly busy, successful people started to form in me an understanding of other examples of that prioritization that my mother taught me,” Freckleton said.
He said he tries to remember that his wife and daughters don’t deserve any of his stress. They only deserve love.
“I think it’s working,” he said of employing this approach. “I ask my daughter, ‘What’s Dad’s favorite thing in the world?’ And she always says, ‘Spending time with his ladies.’ And I hope that she believes it because it really is true.”