Florence Haseltine, MD and PhD, has more accomplishments than most of us could hope for in several lifetimes. She’s an inventor who designed the Haseltine Flyer, a protective container for wheelchairs that is used on airplanes to help people with disabilities travel more easily. She’s also a biophysicist, a reproductive endocrinologist, and a women’s health advocate who overcame severe dyslexia. The DC-based physician is also the founder of the Society for Women’s Health Research and, incidentally, is a self-taught coder. She builds her own websites. ABILTY’s Chet Cooper caught up with her to chat about her upcoming trip to India to study hepatitis C, her company, Haseltine System’s Inc., and the perks of living across the street from a federal courthouse.
Florence Haseltine: We met many years ago.
Chet Cooper: We did.
Haseltine: I used to go the Ability trade show.
Cooper: I remember you fondly because I had a sinus attack at one of the Abilities expos, and you were so nice and caring and gave me some antihistamines. It was such a bad attack. I couldn’t stop sneezing (laughs).
Haseltine: I’m glad that I helped somebody. I didn’t tell anybody for a long time that I was a doctor, until someone had a seizure at one of the expos and I intervened, and everybody was trying to touch the person. I had told them to stay away, and they started to question me. Finally, I just told someone. But I didn’t see any reason to before that as it wasn’t why I was there. I was there with the wheelchair contingent. But I just low-keyed it until I had to pull rank. (laughs) You know what I mean?
Cooper: I knew you were a doctor, and I don’t know how I knew that.
Haseltine: It may have been that we were discussing things at other points. I wasn’t hiding it, but I wasn’t using my title either. I didn’t have it on my business card. It wasn’t relevant to that environment. I was trying to get real responses, not influenced by anything else. Anyway, that was a while ago. I am now selling occasionally, not to the airlines but to TSA. It never was a business that really took off, because airlines, no matter what you do to them or how you try to restrict them, prefer to break the wheelchairs rather than protect them.
Cooper: So it still hasn’t changed? I remember that was a challenge you were having, and that they’d be more willing to pay the fines and pay for new chairs than use a product that actually would save the chair.
Cooper: Very discouraging.
Haseltine: Well, it’s the way the world is, not that we like it that way. We try to change it here and there. How did we get in touch again this time?
Cooper: Oh, it was happenstance. I was looking up an address for someone in the Los Angeles area, and the street address was Hazeltine.
Cooper: And I just thought, “Wait a minute, whatever happened.” So I looked you up, and I saw that the website was still there. So I thought I’d give you a call and see how things are going and if you’re still selling your containers.
Haseltine: TSA bought 500 of them, and they contracted through Lockheed Martin and SRI. It was a very strange series of contracts. They were going to teach people how to use them, and they bought 490. That’s enough for one container for every location in the country. The last sale was maybe two or three years ago. I have no idea what they decided to have happen after that because the people at SRI did all the purchasing directly and to whom we sent the containers.
Cooper: So they found you?
Haseltine: They found me because I’m the only one still to this day manufacturing them. Every so often somebody comes up with a design. But they always require more work for the airlines or the passenger. I think some of the things I’ve seen are kind of ingenious and somewhat flexible. But there are several major problems that have to be overcome. One of the things that one of the women who uses a wheelchair said to me is, “You’ve got to put a good wheelchair in there because you have the ugly kind, and nobody wants to buy anything with the ugly kind of wheelchair in it.” (laughs)
Cooper: It’s marketing.
Haseltine: She was right. You take what you hear and you change the wheelchair that you show. (laughs)
Cooper: What other things have you been doing?
Haseltine: I’ve been building websites for other people. In fact, that’s one of the things I have been doing. I built one for the Global Virus Network. I worked with them for almost five years. I’m transferring out of that and moving the site to another developer because I do things on a volunteer basis, and on some point it’s time to turn it over to the organization and let them find somebody who can do it with more dedicated time and resources.
Cooper: What is the Global Virus Network about?
Haseltine: GVN.org. It’s the medical one about the pathogenic viruses that are affecting humans, like Ebola, hepatitis C, HIV, chronic infections and some of the acute ones that come up. It’s a group of scientists who meet and try to share data and information. It’s interesting.
Cooper: Absolutely. It’s such an important topic for the species. I just saw a strange commercial airing on a regular program about hepatitis C and the issue with baby boomers, and they were talking about huge percentages of people who might have this dormant in their bodies.
Haseltine: Yes. And the reason for this is very interesting. First, it’s from needle sharing. But the other way you get it, and a lot of people got it, was women, particularly who were Rh-negative, like I am, who had children who were Rh-positive. They gave them Rogaine, and the Rogaine contained the hepatitis C virus inadvertently. It was transmitted to a lot of baby boomers as a result. I’m in that age group, and so it requires that you get liver functions and tests because it’s hidden and doesn’t appear until later. But a lot of it had to do with drug use, transfusions, and things like that in this country. In other countries, it had other problems. In both Japan and in Egypt, they were getting rid of a water-borne worm, a parasite, and they gave the medicine, but they didn’t change the needles between people. So they infected huge numbers of people. They have hepatitis C.
Cooper: And they were trying to heal.
Haseltine: I’m going to India on a hepatitis C trip to see what we can do about managing some of the data.
Cooper: It sounds like you’re extremely busy. You’re going to India to manage the data. What does that entail?
Haseltine: I’m not sure yet. We’re going to be looking to see who’s getting treated. I haven’t been totally briefed on it yet. In fact, I keep saying, “Let me download the app,” and they keep saying, “Well, we’re finishing it.” You know what I mean. So probably the day before I leave, I’ll find out what I’m doing. I know I’ll be going to Mumbai and Calcutta. Other than that, I’m not sure what will happen. But I’m pretty relaxed about these things. I don’t worry, I just get on the plane and go.
Cooper: Is there a specific outbreak that has occurred?
Haseltine: No. Hepatitis C doesn’t have outbreaks. It just has people who have it because they got it either directly from another person who had it or from one of these treatments. In India, it’s mainly through other people. I can’t remember exactly what the contagion is. I know I’m going to have to know some answers by next week, but I don’t know them this week.
Cooper: What are the manifestations of having Hepatitis C?
Haseltine: It can be several things. You can have the acute form, which is jaundice and bad liver function and being really, really sick. However, if you get a chronic infection, what can happen in this case is, you can get liver cancer. And that’s why they want to get rid of it because it’s one of the viruses that leads to cancer.
Haseltine: So you really do want to get rid of it. It’s treatable. There’s been some medication out in the last few years, and it’s 100 percent treatable. You can get reinjected, and I think you get infected, but let me just check. I was paying attention to that a while ago, and I have not paid attention to it since. When you know you’re going to get involved in something in a few weeks, and you get to catch up on everything, you don’t do it until then. Let me just check. I might as well catch up on it now.
Cooper: That’s a great idea.
Haseltine: (laughs) I’m just looking it up on Wiki. It actually is better if you get a bad response and get jaundice. You’re much more apt to clear the disease.
Cooper: Is this all within the last 20-plus years that the treatment has improved?
Haseltine: In the last 10 years. The young man who figured out the treatment was a guy who discovered it treating people here in the District of Columbia. He is quite a marvelous person. It’s usually transmitted by blood-to-blood contact.
The treatment just became available in the last few years. It’s sold by a company called Gilead Sciences.
Cooper: The ad I saw on TV looked like a PSA, a public service announcement, but on the lower left side was, “Sponsored by Gilead.”
Haseltine: And it costs $125,000, or something like that, for a treatment. You take one pill a day for 12 weeks.
Cooper: You also do some things with women’s rights and women empowerment?
Haseltine: Yeah, I founded the Society for [the Advancement of] Women’s Health Research in 1990. Even before I got involved with the wheelchair container business. We got the laws changed so that women were included in clinical trials. Now we’re focusing a lot on two things. One, if there’s a disease with big sex differences, like some autoimmune diseases. Hepatitis C, incidentally, is one of them. And then the other one is diseases that typically affect women, like endometriosis, fibroids and things like that. Men don’t have that because they don’t have the same organs. But they do have the pleasure of getting other things.
Cooper: Right, like prostate cancer.
Cooper: It’s always something to look forward to. The organization you created partly benefits from being in DC, that you go in meet law makers?
Haseltine: Yes. There’s no way you can get around the politics of everything in Washington, as you can well imagine. It’s part of life here. I live across from the federal courthouse, where Manafort was tried. So I just went over to the hearing. I just walked into the courthouse. You get a list of all the defense attorneys and judges in the case. It’s really quite exciting.
Cooper: Do you have an outlet, do you write any columns?
Haseltine: No, not really. I used to be the editor of the Journal of Women’s Health, which also started in the ’90s. And I used to write editorials, some of them a bit snarky.
Haseltine: It was quite a bit of fun, actually!
Cooper: I bet!
Haseltine: One editorial I wrote very early on was that all these places were saying, “We have to get women. We have to recruit the single women.” And I pointed out to them, which they didn’t like, of course, was that even if they took every woman available, or a percentage of the women in the pool available, that it would be 20-some years before we’d have 15 percent to 20 percent women because of pool size issues. And that’s exactly what happened. It was a mathematical exercise and very easy to do. It went from the time one entered the system as an assistant professor to full professor , which was often 10 or 15 years, but the turnover rate was 1 in 40 because the old guys weren’t retiring. So the calculations were easy. I’ve watched, and it’s been pretty much on target. Now they’re reaching the 20 percent level. But I wrote the article 30 years ago.
They still always ask, “How do we get women on platforms?” It’s not hard if you pay attention to details, think about your minority women first, and not bring all your friends in. It’s kind of fun to watch the system as it goes along. Recently, I was telling you about this new project that I’m working on with teenagers, it’s written with the new framework called Framework 7 where you can easily put it on iPhones and things like that. Or use it as a web page, but not using WordPress or one of those. It’s a different framework.
Cooper: It’s open source?
Haseltine: Yes, Framework 7 is open source.
Cooper: Any security issues with hackers coming in?
Haseltine: Well, I suppose there could be, but the data is kept on a server where you have to have a key, and you have to have the registered IP to access it. And there’s no forms on it. It’s just information only. It doesn’t have any capabilities built into it.
Cooper: So it’s a straightforward, content-driven concept?
Haseltine: That’s all it is. It does pull its data from an SQL database. The website itself is kept on a different server and the database is on another. To access the website, you have to have a key, and to access the database you have to be registered. For the Global Virus Network, I keep the data separate from the HTML, the job description and everything else. They’re never on the same server.
Cooper: It’s pretty cool that you know web development.
Haseltine: It sort of fell into place because of my company. I had a website very early on in 1995-96, and the thing died one day. There was no backup, so I had to learn, and then it was all HTML. I had to get it off of patches, and I learned how to build HTML in 24 hours. After that, I just kept adding on. So I do a lot of work usually with WordPress. But you’re right, I haven’t paid attention to my own site. I think when I get back from India I’ll spend some time and clean it up. I actually have a fit when things aren’t responsive. My own Society for Women’s Health Research, which is SWHR.org, I made that site responsive a while ago.
Cooper: And then there’s WC3 standards of accessibility.
Haseltine: Right. That’s a whole other issue that has to be tended to. That’s why sometimes the simplest things are a lot better, because they’re much more accessible.
Cooper: Oh, yeah. If you don’t have a bunch of bells and whistles and tables, if you just have straight-text HTML, or HTML5 that’s really easy for screen readers or those systems that read for the blind to navigate.
Haseltine: When I was at the Manafort trial, I got quoted in the New York Times. It was kind of hysterical. What happened was, I was sitting next to Ken Vogel, who’s one of their writers. I didn’t know it, but I just asked, “Who do you write for?” and he said, “New York Times. What are you doing here?” I said, “I live across the street and I come to some of the trials.” And he said, “What do people in the neighborhood think of it?” I said, “Well, you know, all the cameras were parked out on the lawn where our dog pees.” They’re on the pee toilet. And my dog photobombed MSNBC one day.
Haseltine: I was very proud of him. I didn’t even know it, and then I get a call on my cell phone. Somebody says, “Do you know you’re out there and your dog is peeing behind MSNBC?” It was hysterical.
Cooper: That is funny!
Haseltine: It is. Then later in the trial, I kept up a correspondence with him. He asked me what did I think about it. It was the section where they were trying to bring up the sexual peccadillos of one of the people, not something I found very interesting. I said, “Well, sex spices up a trial, but to me the real thing about the trial is that Manafort helped get somebody elected in Ukraine who allowed a missile to be brought in that shot down a plane with a lot of scientists whom the Global Virus Network worked with.” I don’t know if you remember.
Cooper: I remember. “We didn’t know who shot them down.”
Haseltine: Well, we do know who shot them down. But in any case, I was hoping that would get quoted, but it didn’t. What got quoted was, “Florence Haseltine, retired, blah-blah-blah, said that it’s using the dogs’ pee toilet.” And then later on it said, “She says that sex spices up a trial.” Speaking of things out of context, it was hysterical. But I was very proud to be quoted in the New York Times as getting the words “toilet,” “pee” and “sex.”
Cooper: It’s very funny.
Haseltine: Quite an accomplishment.
Cooper: That’s something to put in your bio.
Haseltine: Yes, definitely! But I’ll tell you, once you go to the trial, you learn how these guys launder millions and millions of dollars. They didn’t pay taxes. They had Manafort buy clothes, housing, things like that. It is positively the most disgusting thing when you know people who need help and could use it, and you find these guys who are doing that.
Cooper: I’ve heard about things like that, too, where it’s ridiculous amounts of greed and wealth and we have so many people in need. I don’t understand the mindset.
Haseltine: No. And we pay our taxes. Well, of course, I don’t have any money, so nobody told me how to hide it. You learn a lot going to these trials. It’s not necessarily anything you want to learn, incidentally, but you learn it.
Cooper: You’re still manufacturing the Flyer case for wheelchairs, right?
Haseltine: I sell a couple every year, but not very many. It’s not a business I would recommend somebody get into unless they had other means of support. The company that manufactures them for me is really wonderful. They store the containers for me and the holds. They’ve never charged me anything. They do charge me an outrageous amount to make them. You can understand it if they’re holding all your equipment year in and year out, and they sometimes only have a few sales. And then we drop-ship right from there. I’m very pleased with the company.
Cooper: When you travel abroad, do you try to make a point of talking to that particular airline about the product when you’re on the ground?
Haseltine: I have. I have. One airline ordered deliveries on September 10th, 2001, so needless to say, with what happened the next day, they lost interest. But they were pretty interested, and I tried to set up an appointment in London with the new person who took over for them because they redid their whole staff afterwards, and he dissed me on two occasions by not showing up at our agreed time.
Haseltine: Occasionally, I get interest from airlines asking about it, but nothing ever follows through. And this is what I think the reason is. It’s not the baggage handlers. They really would like to have it. They have pride in their work. But this is very callous of me and might not even be true, but people up above don’t want people with disabilities traveling because it costs them time. And they want to discourage them as much as possible. And breaking their wheelchairs is one way to do it.
Haseltine: I think it’s intentional. Because they’ve all had consent decrees, and some of them are quite large. They just put it in their baggage handling budget. It’s proprietary information. You can’t find out how much they spend on wheelchairs. I’ve worked hard to get the regs passed so that they had to pay the full amount. I think they don’t want disabled people traveling.
Cooper: I’ve always wondered about that myself. It takes more time, and time is money to these companies.
Haseltine: It takes about two extra minutes. Which is long for them when you add it up to a million passengers.
Cooper: I travel often with a person who uses a wheelchair, and sometimes there are a lot of other people on that flight, and we take longer. We pre-board and do all that, but I could see where the airlines would be frustrated if they have a lot of people. I took a picture once—I think we were in China—and there was a line of people in wheelchairs getting on. Tell me about the product. You have two types of containers?
Haseltine: Yes. I have the large ones for the motorized wheelchairs, but that won’t fit on a lot of planes. If somebody wants to order it or calls me about it, I’ll tell you that 90 percent of the time I discourage them from getting it. A chair doesn’t get smaller when you put it in the container. And it’s pointing out that yes, it will protect the chair, but it won’t fit in the plane. And even your chair won’t fit in the plane unless they tip it on its side, so wrap the arms well. I spend a lot of time with people because I don’t want them to buy one of these things that’s so enormous. Number one, where are they going to put it when they’re home? And the individual owning it, unless they’re taking it by road and they have it on the back of the car, the big container is not appropriate for most airline travel. You have to be on a really big plane where it’ll fit. But the little container’s not a problem. It fits in all planes.
Cooper: So you think the smaller container is good for an end consumer to buy?
Haseltine: Yes, for folding chairs or shower chairs, things like that. It fits those.
It doesn’t fit fixed frame ones. I could build one for fixed frames, and you might think that maybe the sports people could use them. But in the end, unless I’m willing to donate them, which would require me building them and buying them, etc., I’m not going to build those.
Cooper: Do you remember the powered wheelchair called the iBot?
Cooper: Did you hear it’s coming back?
Haseltine: Well, I did not hear it was coming back, but it doesn’t surprise me. Are they modifying it?
Cooper: Yes. The history is that Dean Kamen invented it sold it to Johnson & Johnson. They spent a lot of money, and they couldn’t get the insurance companies to pick up the cost, so they got out. He got it back somehow and I think Toyota’s is going to take it over.
Haseltine: That’s great! Good for Toyota! That was the iBot people, we talked about building a container for them. We could have done it. But it didn’t go anywhere, fortunately or unfortunately. Dean Kamen is such a smart guy. He had Johnson & Johnson pay for it. He kept all the rights. This guy is so smart. He kept the rights, like he did for the—
Haseltine: —Segway. Then he sold the Segway. The guy who owned the Segway died because he used it too close to the edge of a mountain and went overboard.
Cooper: Oh, my God, I didn’t know that!
Haseltine: Oh, yeah.
Cooper: He died on his own product.
Haseltine: Without a doubt, Dean is so smart. What a brilliant guy.
Cooper: Because Dean gave him the map of where to ride?
Haseltine: No, no, no.
Cooper: Just joking.
Haseltine: You do see Segways around in mall and police use them. It has a niche market. It’s a good product. I’ve ridden on them. I love them. But then one day, he sold it. He gets bored with things and sells them. It’s just hysterical. I just thinking he’s one of the best. He’s a genius. He and I both won the same Kilby award many years ago. It’s not given anymore. It was out of Dallas, Texas, a long time ago.
Cooper: And why did you get it?
Haseltine: I got it for the wheelchair containers, but also for the women’s health stuff.
Haseltine: Heaven only knows why one gets things. It comes to somebody’s attention.
Cooper: Do you have prices online for the containers?
Haseltine: Yeah. It doesn’t cost much to make one, but because they don’t do it very often, they have to gear up and it’s a big deal when they do. So the prices I have to charge are pretty outrageous. They really cost about $200 but it costs them well over that to make them since they’re put together by hand. If they got a huge order, but even the one the government gives us, which I think the largest one was for 150, it wasn’t big enough to drop the price. In fact, they raised it on me because they had been doing it so seldom. They’ve kept the molds now for almost 25 years. They’re really a great company to deal with.
Cooper: Does it matter when the airlines change the dimensions of their planes? Does that affect you?
Haseltine: Only if they have bigger doors. The small containers can go in sideways. It’s not a real problem with that one. Suitcases and bikes cases are even bigger. It has to do with the width and height and length. And those big containers are big. They have to hold a full-sized, motorized wheelchair.
Cooper: Is the battery detached when they do that?
Haseltine: You can leave it on nowadays because they’re dry cells. When I first started, they were still using wet cells.
Cooper: All right. I’m serious about trying to get you writing something for us on a regular basis. It could be any length in words, whatever you feel comfortable with. I look forward to something happening.
Haseltine: It was wonderful to talk to you again!
Cooper: Yes, great talking to you again. I’m happy that you’re still in business. It takes a lot to keep anything alive that long.
Haseltine: I’m just lucky that I have a great company to work with, that I have my own financial resources, and that I don’t have to rely on it. I couldn’t. It’s a small business, and it’s been in existence over 20 years, which is amazing in itself.
Cooper: When you’re in India, Please send us updates. Hepatitis C is a big issue these days.
Haseltine: I’ll be happy to do that.
Cooper: That’d be great. Maybe pictures?
Haseltine: It shouldn’t be a problem taking pictures there. However, the people with disabilities you often see in India are rather sad. But there are a lot of people working very hard there to improve things. I don’t want to focus negatively on things because I don’t think that’s good for anybody.
Cooper: We’re more into positive issues. If you talk about the positive, it’ll raise the level of others wanting to get to that rather than focusing on the negative.
Haseltine: That’s more my style anyway. I can always, with sarcasm, point out the stupidity of things.
Haseltine: That’s the best way of doing it, making a terrible joke. It’s like in the old days when people would say to me, “You’re taking a man’s place going to medical school,” and I’d say, “Yes, I am! Who is he?”
Cooper: (laughs) Really? People would say that to you?
Haseltine: Oh, you cannot imagine! I could go through the list of things people would say to me. And since it was always repeated, I only had to not respond once.
Haseltine: I have to teach my daughters these things because they’re not getting the junk until much later in their careers, but it’s still happening.
Haseltine: Thanks for remembering. That was very thoughtful.
Cooper: I’m glad I happened to see a street that sparked my memory. (laughs)
Haseltine: We’ll be in touch.
Cooper: Have a wonderful trip.