GUELPH—A few years ago University of Guelph computer science professor Gary Grewal began to get very sick and didn't know why.
He had test after test but doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with him.
"I was extremely ill and I just felt awful. I actually said to my doctor, I feel like I'm going to die here,'" he recalls.
Finally, in 2010 he was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Hemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron collects in the body.
It can lead to diabetes and even death if left untreated.
Now, Grewal has used that experience to develop a popular medical app that's raising awareness of the little-known condition, and helping people who suffer from the disease keep track of their own health on their smartphones.
With a treatment called phlebotomy, where blood is drawn regularly, and constant monitoring of blood samples, his iron levels started to drop and he slowly started to feel better.
"It was a very important psychological thing for me to actually see that these treatments were working," he said.
He started keeping track of his iron levels using an excel spreadsheet.
But it was complicated.
"I would go in sometimes and I wouldn't have a pencil or paper with me and then I would forget to ask. So I started missing points," he said.
"And it just dawned on me that it would be really great if I could just plug my numbers in on a smartphone."
He started working with Andrew Hamilton-Wright of Mount Allison University and three U of G students on an app that could help people living with Hemochromatosis around the world keep better track of their treatment.
Released in mid-September, the app has already been downloaded thousands of times.
Dubbed, Iron-Tracker, it lets people keep tack of all the results from blood tests and graphs iron levels over time. It includes a scheduling feature to make sure people don't miss appointments. Users can also note which arm blood samples are taken from so the same one isn't used over and over again.
The Canadian Hemochromatosis society is also promoting the app.
President Bob Rogers said it has already made a huge difference in the lives of people living with the disease.
"Prior to the app people used to keep the data in an excel spreadsheet, for example. It didn't have all the features that this app has, reminding them of when a test is necessary, or what arm they had their treatment from," he said over the phone from Kelowna B.C.
Rogers said many people have never heard of Hemochromatosis, despite the fact that it affects 1 in 300 Canadians of Northern European descent.
Raising the profile of the condition is a key part of the app.
"It's really just about helping and increasing awareness of the disorder," said Grewal.
U of G computer science student Andrew D'Angelo, who wrote the code for the Android version of the phone, said the app accounts for about 30 per cent of all medical downloads from the Apple Store.
He didn't know about the disease before he started working on the project.
"When Gary talked to me about it, you could tell that it was something that was really close to him," he said.
Grewal said the app is especially popular in Australia, the UK and the US.
"I've had about half a dozen phone calls of people just phoning out of the blue and saying, hey I've got this, thanks for the app."
He said some of the most rewarding feedback has been from online reviews, including one which simply stated: "I've been waiting for this!