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

Knowing that cold water could numb pain from burns, Baxter began to experiment with inflatable cuffs and other devices that used water. Nothing worked. Then one morning in 2004, Baxter drove home after an exhausting overnight shift in the emergency room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite, the hospital where she worked. The wheels of her car were out of alignment, causing the steering wheel to vibrate. As she pulled into her driveway, her sleep-deprived brain registered a career-changing fact: The vibration had numbed her hands. Baxter ran inside, grabbed a black-and-yellow personal massager and a bag of frozen peas and asked Max to sit down for an experiment. She pressed the frozen peas against his arm with the massager, switched it on and pinched his skin a few inches below the vibrating massager. He didn’t feel a thing. Then she tried the combo on her two other kids. It worked so well that they didn’t even feel a pinch hard enough to leave a small mark. “That was my eureka moment,” says Baxter. Her husband, Louis, drew a cute little bumblebee face on the massager, and Buzzy was born.

Though Baxter put in 80 to 100 hours a month in the ER and devoted 40 additional hours to research and lecturing at pain-management conferences, she spent every spare moment trying to develop a prototype by experimenting with motors from old cell phones donated by friends and neighbors. “It was an invigorating hobby,” she says. “I was having giddy fun smashing things and wiring things up.”

In 2007, Baxter applied for, and received, grant money to do a controlled scientific study. She named her business MMJ Labs, after her kids—Max, now 15; Miles, 13; and Jill, 11—and planned to sell or license the concept once she had the research to support it. But she still lacked a prototype. The coin-shaped cell phone motors didn’t work properly; she needed a cylindrical motor. In January she met with a group of young engineering graduate students at Georgia Tech who sometimes collaborate with small businesses to solve real-world design problems. As she described her quest for the perfect cylindrical vibrating motor, they started to laugh. To them, the answer was obvious. That afternoon, Baxter and two grad students headed to a sex shop in Atlanta’s red-light district. “I’d like to buy several vibrators,” Baxter told the cashier. “What do you have on sale?”

“Oooh, honey,” said the cashier. “I like the way you shop!” Baxter went home with nine vibrators. Two months later, she’d fashioned a 9-volt prototype. Her research, which would be conducted on 32 adult IV patients, began in March.By summer the results were in: Buzzy reduced—or in some cases eliminated—the pain of IV needle insertions in every patient.

Then Baxter hit a wall. Every company she pitched on her idea wanted to make Buzzy disposable in order to increase profit margins. Baxter, who is so frugal that she built her first home-office desk out of old cardboard boxes, couldn’t stand the thought of all that waste. And though she believed in Buzzy, she didn’t want to manufacture the device herself. “I didn’t know how to build a company. I felt like, ‘Please don’t put this burden on me. I don’t want this responsibility. I don’t want to fail,’ ” she says. “But it felt wrong to abandon something that could help people.” Her husband finally gave her the push she needed. “How are you going to feel every time you hear a child cry and wonder if you could have done something to avoid that?” he asked.

First pubished in the May 2013 issue

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