She Invented Buzzy, the Drug-Free Pain Relief Device

Pain specialist Amy Baxter couldn’t protect her own son from the distress of injections. So she invented a device that would do the job

by Jillian Keenan
dr amy baxter image
During the start-up phase, Baxter and her staff worked out of the basement of her Atlanta home, aka “the hive.”
Photograph: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao

In January 2010, Dr. Amy Baxter, 44, a pediatric emergency physician and pain specialist, received an unexpected visit at her Atlanta home from a woman named Karen Mae Sledge. Sledge had found Baxter’s address on the Web, she explained, and assumed it would lead to an office building, not a family home. Then Sledge handed Baxter a basket of presents. “I just wanted to thank you for helping my dad,” she said. “He was about to stop dialysis because he found it so painful.” But Sledge had given him the revolutionary pain-reduction device that Baxter had invented, and it enabled him to manage his lifelong needle phobia. Her father agreed to continue with the treatment.

For Baxter, who as a child used to sit outside her home hoping that an injured person might pass by “so I could jump in with my Band-Aids and save the day,” Sledge’s story was deeply gratifying. Initially, Baxter invented Buzzy (buzzy4shots.com) to help kids bear their immunizations. “But this visit was the first time I had an inkling that there were other people who might need Buzzy more than kids getting shots,” she says.

The gadget, about the size of a computer mouse, looks like a large plastic bee. A gel pack is attached to the underside of the bee, and right before getting a shot, you press the frozen pack against your skin a few inches from the injection site. When the device is switched on, Buzzy gently vibrates. Like magic, the area goes numb and you feel the needle much less. “The sensations of cold and vibration desensitize the nerves, thereby dulling or eliminating the pain from the shot,” Baxter says. “The concept is based on gate-control theory. The neural pathways that transmit pain can only process so much sensation at one time.”

Baxter knew that Buzzy could help children, who now get up to 30 vaccines before age 18. But after Sledge’s visit, she started receiving reports about adults using the device—for fertility shots, IV insertions, diabetes injections, arthritis treatments, even tattoos. In 2009, the year the first Buzzys were sold, at $34.95 each, Baxter grossed $56,000. Today her sales are nearing $1 million, and adults are her biggest market. About 500 hospitals and 1,500 clinics nationwide now use Buzzy.

Baxter’s war against injection pain began in 2001 when she took her son Max, then four years old, to the doctor for his vaccines. Baxter had devoted years of her career to pain research, so she thought she was uniquely equipped to help Max through the ordeal. “I had topical anesthetic creams. I had a box of cold juice for him to drink right at the moment of getting the shots. I had a book with hunt-and-find pictures to distract him,” she says. “I told him what to expect. He was prepared and ready.” But things didn’t go well. Without warning, a nurse plunged the needle into Max’s arm. He didn’t cry or say a word. Then, as they left the doctor’s office, he vomited all over the floor.

“After that, every time we had to go to the doctor, he would get physically ill,” Baxter says. “There I was, a pediatrician and pain specialist, and I couldn’t even protect my own kid. What were other parents going to do?” At first, she was angry with herself for her inability to shield her son from the traumatic experience, but gradually her anger turned into a determination to find a better way.

First pubished in the May 2013 issue

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