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Article updated: 4/8/2012 7:44 AM

You've got mail, and it's from your dead loved one

By Burt Constable

Imagine receiving a birthday video from your long-dead father, a Mother's Day drawing from your daughter who died last fall or an anniversary note from a spouse who no longer is around to celebrate in person.

Pharmacist Diptesh Patel, who grew up in Schaumburg, has helped develop a website called ZarpZ that may provide comfort by delivering messages in the future from people who won't live to see it.

Patel and his business partner, Todd Edwards, developed the idea at their California pharmacy practice after Edwards was going through the belongings of a relative.

"At the bottom of one of the crates was a letter from his mom. His mom died of liver cancer when he was 1," Patel says.

Reading the message written to him by his mother who died four decades earlier was a joy for the 41-year-old Edwards. The pair realized the comfort that could bring to mourning loved ones, but also to many of the terminal patients they treat.

"Being diagnosed with a terminal disease can really throw people," Patel says. Communicating during such an emotional time can be difficult, especially when the emotional message is intended for a child who wouldn't be able to appreciate it until years later.

"There really isn't a formal way of doing that," Patel says. "The average person might write a letter and give it to a relative."

Those letters don't always end up in the right hands at the right time.

"It surprises me the things that get lost, but they do," says Patel, a 1991 graduate of Schaumburg High School.

ZarpZ.com allows messages to be stored online and delivered at a meaningful time in the survivors' lives. The "Arp" in the website name, which rhymes with "harps," stands for "About Real People," Patel says.

The pharmacist says he has helped his patients prepare videos, letters, photo books and other messages to be delivered after those patients die.

"We help them create. We make it easier to record things and upload videos," Patel says of ZarpZ.

The site is drawing praise from others who work with terminal patients.

"It's a great concept," says Dr. Maxwell T. Vergo. The oncologist won a 2010 Compassionate Care Award for his work with patients at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Terminally ill patients often feel powerless because of their inability to change their prognosis, but ZarpZ "helps people find something they can have control over," Vergo says.

"It's a way of reminding people that there is a point. Who do you care about, and what do you want to tell them?" Vergo says. "It helps you (the patient) in the moment to focus on that instead of thinking of the down point about how you won't be around."

Similar to the CaringBridge.org website that allows people to share messages and updates about a patient, ZarpZ is a free not-for-profit site that does accept donations.

"We're not looking to commercialize this," says Patel, who already has rejected interest from potential buyers and shunned suggestions to charge a subscription fee. "That's just not what we're about. We've got full-time jobs that pay us well."

While there are no ads on the site now, Patel says it is possible that the site could add links allowing people to order flowers, candy or some other gift to be delivered in the future. A dying husband might want to send flowers and a video message to his widow on what would have been their 50th anniversary.

The website can send out emails immediately alerting recipients that something will be delivered on a future date, or let that delivery be a surprise. The system can send messages to multiple email addresses and send out reminders for people to update their information whenever they change email addresses.

Patel, Edwards and a few investors provided the more than $100,000 required to back up the messages on six servers and keep the website going for six decades.

"ZarpZ fills a very important need for many families that is rarely talked about. It's a way for someone with terminal illness to share their deepest and darkest with family or friends when it's just too difficult to say it to their face," says Jonny Imerman, who turned his survival of testicular cancer into a Chicago-based charity called Imerman Angels (at imermanangels.org). It sets up free one-on-one support with a trained person who survived a similar illness.

"It's hard to imagine how we might feel until we're in that position," Imerman adds. "Maybe the biggest value is for the person with not much time left … I can imagine this must be very therapeutic and stress-relieving, and bring confidence that loved ones will be able to read it once they are gone."

That is exactly what happens with the patients he's helped on ZarpZ, Patel says.

"It ends up being a very lovely day," Patel says of the process of creating an entry. "It's amazing the impact it has on those people."

In addition to being used by cancer patients, ZarpZ has found a following among some members of the military, who record messages for loved ones just in case they don't return from a deployment. One father with Alzheimer's recorded messages made when he's lucid to send to his future self. None of the messages are seen by anyone but the intended recipient, and people can go back and edit messages, change the recipients or delivery dates, or simply delete them.

"I went to my son's first PowerPoint presentation in third grade, and I recorded it and sent it to him so he'll get it when he's 16," Patel says. "I've got stuff going out to my kids just in case. It's kind of that insurance policy that nothing is going to be left unsaid."

Website: Military members recording messages in case they don't come home

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