Why My Social Media Friends Thought I Was Dying

Health and medicine explained.
July 10 2013 2:48 PM

Alive and Tweeting

Facebook friends, relax. I’m not dying. Why did you think I was?

Hospital patient.
Social media has profoundly transformed the way most of us acquire and act on information, including updates about a loved one's medical emergency.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Attention Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Google Plus circles, LinkedIn connections, and assorted friends of friends of friends: At no point last week was I clinically dead.

My heart didn’t stop for seven minutes. I didn’t have emergency surgery. I wasn’t placed in a medically induced coma and chilled to 90 degrees to preserve my brain function. I wasn’t then carefully warmed to awaken, stunningly, to the embrace of my family. And while I did spend one night at the hospital, I spent it on a lumpy folding cot in the waiting room outside the cardiac intensive care unit, not inside it.

The heart-attack victim was my sister’s husband, who also happens to be named Dan. Even in my emotionally addled, sleep-deprived state, I anticipated that this surfeit of Dans might be confusing, so I tried to make the distinction clear in my various social media postings updating his condition. I called him “Dan D.” (as opposed to Dan F.) and was careful to tag him and my sister in my Facebook posts. I even posted several updates that had no purpose other than to clarify who was gravely ill and who was merely on the support-and-communications team.

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It didn’t matter; the misunderstandings pinballed crazily through cyberspace. My literary agent was quickest on the draw, telling me she was thinking of me and was glad to hear I was on the mend. (She had the good taste not to ask whether this would affect the timing of my next book proposal.) A colleague who is a magazine journalist told me she was hoping with all her heart that mine was OK. Another writer friend from Seattle sent along a photo of a pastoral scene to aid my recovery. An evangelical acquaintance from eighth grade offered his fervent prayers for my salvation. And at the newspaper I left eight years ago, several people I barely knew nonetheless wrote to express their shock and horror at my condition. “Glad to hear that Dan is awake and improving,” one of them wrote on my Facebook wall, referring to me in the third person. “Heart attack? No way.”

No way, indeed.

It was hard to know exactly how to react to this outpouring of concern. At first, I was incredulous. How could so many smart people, most of them professional communicators, have so badly misunderstood me, despite the pains I took to try to be crystal clear? Did they really think I would be tweeting immediately after waking from a coma?

As the errors piled up, though, it all began to make sense, in a topsy-turvy virtual-world kind of way. I realized it wasn’t at all far-fetched for my cyberacquaintances to think that someone—my wife, perhaps—would sign onto my Facebook and Twitter accounts and post on my behalf, since that would be the easiest way to let my friends know what was going on. Even my attempts to end the confusion by posting clarifying messages online were easily misconstrued if you only read their first few words: “Everyone, don’t worry, I’m fine!” could mean, “I’m fine now that I’m recovering from this massive heart attack!