An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #83: I Just Retweeted a Kidney

I’ve never met Brian’s dad. And that’s not much of a surprise. Brian lives in another state and is a private person. At times in his life, I’ve described him as hermitic. Even today, in the era of realtime web, Brian only lurks on Facebook and has published a lifetime total of six tweets.

So about the last place I imagined being was in an operating room following the minute-by-minute highlights of the significant kidney surgery being performed on Brian’s dad.

But that’s exactly where I was, via Twitter, a few months ago. Doctors at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle wanted to tweet the surgery in order to raise awareness about a new, less invasive method of removing tumors. So Brian followed the surgery on his computer. And like him, there I sat, staring at my stream of incoming tweets from NPR, tech pundits, friends, The Onion and the folks who were, at that very moment, removing a tumor from my friend’s dad. The updates featured photos from the operating room, including one of a doctor who had his Twitter address embroidered into the back of his scrubs.

If you encounter a lot of people who describe Twitter as a place where people simply share mundane details about their locations or what they had for lunch, have I got some tweets for you.

Clamping arteries will minimize bleeding to provide a clear view of tumor for precise removal.

Now going to remove tumor.

Patient is solid as a rock. No bleeding.

Arteries clamped. Cutting out tumor now. Speed is everything.

Tumor removed. Under 5 minutes. Now suturing!

Once I was sufficiently relieved that the surgery was a success, I was left with a big question: Why would Brian’s notoriously private family have agreed to allow the hospital to tweet the surgery?

So I asked Brian and he gave me three reasons.

First, the family wanted to be supportive of the hospital because of the fine care they were providing. Like many things related to the realtime aspect of the realtime web, I’m not quite sure what benefit is derived from tweeting from the operating room as opposed to simply posting an article or blog post after the surgery’s completion. But I certainly understand the desire to be supportive of the hospital and even altruistic about sharing one’s medical experiences with future patients and their families.

Second, Brian and other members of the family wanted to get realtime updates on the surgery, STAT. Under normal circumstances, that would be almost unthinkable. Without the tweets, Brian knew he’d have to wait for the surgery’s completion when a doctor would come out and give the family an update. We operate in an era of realtime information when Google feels compelled to shave fractions of a second off the time we wait for search results on any topic. So I imagine it’s more brutal than ever to sit in a hospital room waiting for one of the few pieces of information that really matter.

Brian’s mother sat, device-less, in the hospital waiting room throughout the procedure and therefore knew a lot less than everyone else in the world. For Brian, there was no waiting. He got his updates every few minutes. It just so happened that anyone who followed the Swedish Medical Center was also privy to the same realtime updates.

Third and most importantly, Brian explained that his family had an instant sense of relief when the doctors asked if they could tweet the surgery. If the doctors wanted to use Twitter during this surgery, then they must view the procedure as fairly routine. The tweeting of the surgery actually helped to quell Brian’s concerns.

And while he probably wouldn’t verbalize it, I’m sure it made Brian feel supported that some friends were following along from their computer screens. He also later explained that it was sort of nice turning his dad’s cohort on to the realtime revolution.

My siblings all knew what to do to follow along without any explanation. Going into it, my dad was probably aware of Twitter but he had no idea what it actually was. The night before the surgery, he dialed up his retired golfing buddies back home as I coached him trying to explain hash tags to an older crowd. After the surgery the old folks were calling to offer their good wishes and recount how cool it was to “watch” the surgery. I kind of got the feeling that a seed had been planted in that retirement set back home and I had a sense of pride that my dad had something to do with it.

I’m still not sure I’d allow someone to tweet details about a personal medical procedure. But I’d give it a lot more consideration after talking to Brian about his family’s experience. A few months ago, I would have argued that my realtime stream is a place too mundane and public to include anything of deeply personal importance. I’d much rather see the creation of a more private version of Twitter where doctors and patients can communicate without the rest of planet earth being let in on the conversation.

But I suppose this is where we live now. Critical and even personal events will become more prevalent in my lifestream. This is the age of sharing. Why should I expect my internal organs to be bashful? In the future, it might seem more unusual not to tweet a surgery.

If I ever decide to let doctors tweet a surgical procedure, I’m going to at least make sure they do it using my Twitter account. At this point, I’m pretty sure Brian’s dad’s kidney has more followers than I do.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.