How Facebook and Twitter kept me in touch in the hospital

When emergency room doctors told me in late April that I needed surgery really soon for suddenly dangerous gastrointestinal problems, the first thing I did—after calling my wife and parents to let them know how dire things had become—was whip out my iPhone and update my status on Facebook and Twitter.

Using Twitter for running commentary on surgical recovery.

“Surgery for sure,” I wrote. “Apparently this is quite serious and disturbing. This account may be dark awhile.”

And I meant it. I assumed that if I wasn't too overcome with pain to care about social networking, then I'd at least choose to be stoic and not inflict the details of my illness upon my friends.

Who was I kidding? I'm a member of the social networking generation! I’m not one to endure pain—or, really, anything—silently. Indeed, my first update to Facebook (dictated to my wife, apparently, through a morphine haze) came just a couple of hours after I emerged from the operating room.

“Surgery done,” she typed on my behalf. “Colostomy! Diverticulitis! Pain!”

And over the next 24 hours, my friends made 26 comments on that status.

Surgery—or any kind of hospitalization, really—is an isolating event. You're taken away from the people you love, drugged and cut open. After that you spend days watching TV, giving blood at 1 a.m., and drifting in-and-out of consciousness. The pain was the worst thing about surgery; waking up with a colostomy bag was the second. The loneliness could have ranked right up there with those bits of unpleasantness.

But it didn't, quite. Because I kept posting, three and four times a day, to both Facebook and Twitter—and, thank God, folks kept posting right back at me.

Just a few hours after my surgery, in fact, President Obama took the airwaves to announce the death of Osama bin Laden. Slightly more alert this time—and leaving the TV on around-the-clock to reduce my sense of dislocation—I posted this at 12:40 a.m.:

“News flash: Osama bin Laden was hiding in my gut.”

Probably not that funny, in retrospect. But I'd already realized that I'd probably be giving folks regular updates on my recovery, and I didn't want to scare people away with a steady diet of grimness and self-pity.

The limitations of social networking were helpful. During those first days after surgery, there were times I could barely stay awake or concentrate for more than five minutes at a time. (Several times, I actually did fall asleep while updating my social networks, only to snap awake when I dropped my iPhone in my lap.) One-hundred-forty characters allowed me to communicate without spending the kind of energy required from an actual hospital visit. I could dip in and out of the communications stream as I was able.

So I wrote about the food. I wrote about the bad TV. I wrote about peeing into a bottle. Because I’m a nice guy, I did not post pictures of my surgical wounds.

“Got moved in with a roommate today,” I wrote two days after the surgery. “He’s staying up late watching sports. Feels like a summer camp without colons.”

Or, more pathetically, after a particularly rough day: “I can’t joke or even be cheerfully defiant about the series of procedures I’ve been through in the last 24 hours. Right now I feel broken and I just wanna cry.”

People kept responding, with encouragement, with jokes, with promises of prayer, with other comforting comments—even with “likes” on my Facebook status. All of this told me I wasn’t alone, that people cared about me, that they were interested in my welfare. That was absolutely what I needed.

All of this makes sense, if you think about it. There doesn’t seem to be much research about the use of Facebook or Twitter in a hospital setting, but there’s plenty of evidence that the more friends and family a person has—and the stronger those relationships are—the easier it is for them to heal.

I confess that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with online social networks, disdaining both the noise and the perpetual class reunion that makes it difficult for anybody to leave behind the baggage of an old life and start fresh. When I entered the hospital, though, I needed that class reunion to sustain me. And it was nearly as meaningful to me as if everybody had gotten on a plane, flown to Philadelphia, and come for a visit.

We hear a lot about how social networking relationships aren’t “real,” how they rip at the fabric of society, how everything’s going to hell. Maybe that’s true. All I know is that when I entered the hospital, Facebook and Twitter kept me supplied with love and good feelings that made it easier to bounce back from major surgery. I’m happier—and maybe a little healthier—as a result.

[Macworld contributor Joel Mathis is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @joelmmathis.]

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