When people talk about social media use by patients in healthcare the focus tends to be on how social media is used as support tool, for example through communities and forums, or as a source of information, for specific disease groups.  For me social media, especially Facebook, has mainly been a social place where I can maintain my friendships and networks, both locally and globally.  I have written in the past about my Facebook “addiction” – which I got over – but now I have to admit I have a new addiction.  However this time it is not to my Facebook page but that of Don Fulford, my cat, aka TheDonCat.

 Yes my cat has a Facebook page.  Whilst this may sound mad, there is good reasoning behind my move in setting up a page for The Don.  I adopted Don at the end of 2010 from the RSPCA and wanted to do something to raise funds for the RSPCA as a thank you for bringing such an amazing being into my life.  Not being overly sporty ruled out sponsored activities so I thought I would use my social media skills to raise money.  I decided that each new friend Don got on Facebook I would donate £1 and 10p for every comment on his wall.  This way I figured I could raise maybe £100 at most £200.  Little did I know!

What I discovered through Don’s Facebook page was an entire new community on Facebook. Don’s friends started off mainly with my friends but soon he got more and more new friends – and they were all cats!   There are thousands of pets on Facebook (and Twitter) – and many have their own “personality”.  Recently Don overtook me in the number of friends he had – he now has over 700.

One thing I learnt from this group was the real escapism that social media can offer.  Until now there had always been a deliberate purpose to going on Facebook.  Now I started going on because it was just fun.  It made me laugh out loud and sometimes when the real world is dragging you down this sort of escapist fun is a very healthy thing.  I really started looking forward to going on Don’s page – where people still post comments and status updates (unlike my page which is increasingly a string of links to articles and videos rather than personal updates).  Granted the status updates were all bogus but generally highly entertaining – I have even received feedback from my real world friends that they love Don’s status updates. 

The greatest surprise however came from the close knit, supportive community of like-minded people I came across – all via their cats.  A very distressing incident led to one of Don’s “best friends” disappearing from Facebook – all of a sudden the cat’s profile and all his comments had vanished.  Immediately people started posting and asking where he was – and we even started a “Where is Fred*” campaign – fearing that Facebook had removed Fred’s profile because Fred was not “real” but only a cat. The sad reality then emerged – Fred’s owner had had what, for the sake of this post, I will call a breakdown.  She was working stupid hours, had few friends in real life as she did not have time or money to go out, and had no one to turn to.  She posted a very traumatic update via Fred – a pure cry for help – and we all responded.

 I have never in my life seen such a movement of support between what were essentially total strangers separated by large geographic distances.  It actually made me cry.  It was a bit like an epiphany.  And it was also something that most people will probably not understand.  This fact in itself further increased the bonding as we all face the same comments – “mad cat lady” “you’re cat’s got a Facebook page?!  Are you deranged?” and so forth. 

It also turned out many of us face very similar health issues and we were all being open about it – talking  about depression, pain and chronic disease – albeit via our cat’s profiles.  The amount of times people wrote “me too” and “I know how you feel” was heart-warming and unifying.  The list of diseases was very varied – cancer, depression, fibromyalgia, arthritis, hypothyroidism, etc, – but we all shared the same feelings and anxieties.  Here was a group of people on a social media network, none of whom knew each other, communicating via their cats, all being able to relate to each other and not just because we were all cat lovers.  Many of the group saw their pets as one of their key support tools to help them cope with their disease – myself included.  Facebook was just an extension of this.

The cats’ Facebook pages had opened up a world to us all of like-minded people seeking escape from what for some is a very painful real life.  And here we stumbled upon total strangers who had come together to support one of the group who could not cope anymore.  Through Fred’s Facebook page she received 24 hour encouragement, friendship but most importantly the support in knowing she was no longer alone.  She may have been alone and without a support network offline but here was a group of friends who were there for her, to hold her hand virtually through this tough time.

 This to me showcases an invaluable resource and tool that social media offers us.  It links people across the world who share similar issues and difficulties and who can be there to provide the sort of support that patients with chronic disease often lack in real life – and it is there 24 hours a day because thanks to the internet people can come together across time zones and countries.  It is also a sad reality of life that many patients put on a brave face to the outside, offline world, and to friends and family.  Social media can offer a “safe” environment to be open and honest with a total stranger without risking ridicule or shame in the real world – the brave through their own name, but for others through the safety of their pet.

 I am proud of my “mad cat” friends and I think we may have saved a life thanks to Facebook – and that is very powerful indeed.


Don and his chums's after too much catnip

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

**PS please do not be-friend me on Facebook – I only befriend people I actually know and have met – but feel free to befriend The Don.

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