Over to You

HEY, I’M SICK! PASS IT ON.

Via e-mail, friends are Incredibly frank about their Illnesses. Good for them.

BOB RAMSAY July 21 2003
Over to You

HEY, I’M SICK! PASS IT ON.

Via e-mail, friends are Incredibly frank about their Illnesses. Good for them.

BOB RAMSAY July 21 2003

HEY, I’M SICK! PASS IT ON.

Over to You

Via e-mail, friends are Incredibly frank about their Illnesses. Good for them.

BOB RAMSAY

IT USED TO BE that getting really sick, like cancer-sick, meant keeping quiet about it. Sure, you told your family and a few close friends that a loved one was dying or recovering from drastic surgery. But serious illness, like impending death, was intensely private.

Not any more.

In the last month, I’ve received e-mails from three different friends giving me an update on the illness and recovery of a husband, a son and of the correspondent herself.

The first was from the wife of a retired media person who’d had heart bypass surgery. It was forwarded to me by a mutual friend who thought I’d be interested in the man’s progress, and noted that his wife asked if anyone wanted to be put on the list for future bulletins, they should just send along their e-mail address. I did, and had received nine e-mails by the time he was out of hospital, in the last of which she pointed out that “he still feels like a truck has run over him, but, what the hell, he’s home.”

The second individual I was contacted by was a friend who has been living with breast cancer for many years. Her missive began: “Dear Friends, I want to thank you all again for your thoughts, prayers and healing wishes. I feel deeply blessed.” It then went into the details of her chemotherapy and resulting fatigue and depression.

The third correspondent was someone I barely know, and I wondered for a moment if I’d received his e-mail in error. But there were a lot of my friends on his list of recipients, so I figured he was simply exuberant at his son’s recovery from an emergency lung operation, which prompted him to exclaim, “He just won’t be able to work as a test pilot or scuba diver.”

I must admit I was a little disconcerted by all this voluntary disclosure of the circumstances of people’s lives. So “out there” on the page, it made me recoil when I first read it, like reading someone’s confidential medical records that have fallen from a truck. But it didn’t take long to readjust my psyche and view this free-floating frankness as nothing I

more shocking than saying, “I have two speeding tickets.”

Whether the writers intended it or not, the result of their confessions is to draw significantly on our stores of sympathy and compassion. Believe me, I’m happy to oblige. Like most of us, I live in dread of having the kind of condition that would prompt me ever to be on the sending rather than the receiving end of these personal health bulletins.

But after my own awkwardness wore off, I tried to put it in the context of the e-mail senders. None of them was forced to do this—no one put a scalpel to their heads and said: “Write!”

They volunteered, and for that I admire them. The days when serious illness was viewed as a character flaw or a sign of moral weakness are dying, thank heavens, and the iron grip of that attitude on our parents’ generation reminds me of the saying that in our secrets lies our sickness. Indeed, there’s lots of evidence that gathering a network of friends around you to help fight your illness will make that fight victorious, or at least longer and more endurable.

The more I pondered over it, the more I came to think that self-outing via e-mail is not only a gutsy idea, but a terrific one that a lot more of us should consider embracing if we ever experience a catastrophic illness. Think about it just from an efficiency point of view: by sending out updates, you dramatically cut down the number of awkward phone calls from friends that drain you of the energy you could use much more productively taking care of your loved one or yourself. And what if you want to see an ailing friend, but aren’t sure of the protocol? Well, as one of my e-mailers wrote: “If you plan to visit—and that would be OK—please call first because he still needs a lot of rest and will be napping.”

What’s more, you’ll radically cut down on misinformation, such as a well-meaning friend confusing diabetes with defibrillator, or your network planning your funeral instead of your return to work.

But the best reason of all is that e-mail instantly creates networks of support, putting long-lost friends in touch with each other and, seeing their e-mail tag on the list of recipients, reminding them of whom they share in common, and have a responsibility for, in this world.

When someone you know has cancer and they send an e-mail asking you to put them in your prayers, it doesn’t matter whether you’re religious. The message is clear. Not that I’m so sick I have to ask for your help. Rather, part of me is so well that I want to ask for it. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it shows just how far we’ve come in conquering the fear and shame that are so instrumental in undermining one’s health.

Indeed, while the idea of e-mailing your illness brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “viral marketing,” a Chicago-based company has already stepped in to offer patients and their families a free Web-site service (www.TLContact.com) that keeps their loved ones updated throughout their hospitalization and links their families and friends, if need be, all over the world.

It seems that whatever the affliction is, asking your friends for help is good for what ails you. So if you, or a loved one, is sick and you’re tired of feeling alone, maybe just pressing “send” can do what medicine can’t. IT]

Bob Ramsay is a Toronto communications consultant and writer. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca