How Facebook saved a child's life (and could save many more)

Worried Kogan trying to cheer up her son Leo in the ER. Her Facebook updates on his worsening symptoms may have saved his life. (Photo via
Worried Kogan trying to cheer up her son Leo in the ER. Her Facebook updates on his worsening symptoms may have saved his life. (Photo via

Facebook saves lives. Or more to the point, good Facebook friends save lives.

Slate writer and novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan credits her community on the social networking site for helping diagnose her son's mystery illness in time. Kogan woke up on Mother's Day to find her 4-year-old son Leo with a rash and a fever.

Related: How virtual friends can save lives

In the pediatrician's office, she updated her Facebook status with the comment: "Nothing says Happy Mother's Day quite like a Sunday morning at the pediatrician's." As his symptoms worsened-high fever, swollen face-she continued sharing photos and concerns to a growing community of friends and 'friends'.

"Baby getting sicker. Eyes swollen shut. Fever rising. Penicillin not working. Might be scarlet fever. Or roseola. Or...???? Sigh," she wrote. After sharing news of his worsening symptoms, she got a call from a friend who saw the update and offered some sage advice: get to the hospital. Kogan's friend had seen these symptoms before when her own son had Kawasaki disease, a rare and potentially fatal illness that accelerates in days and may lead to a dangerous heart condition.

Two other Facebook friends, both pediatricians, also saw her status update and sent the same diagnostic warning. "As much as I wanted to be my usual mellow self, the immediacy of the Facebook feedback was enough to push me out the door," writes Kogan on

It wasn't long before their feedback was confirmed: Leo had Kawasaki disease. Two months later, he is still recovering from the disease that wreaked havoc on his heart and liver. But the outcome could have been much worse and Kogan is grateful for the instant 'in-network' advice and support.

Her story is unique but not the first of its kind. Last year, a pediatric nurse spotted cancer on her friend's child after scrolling through her Facebook photos, effectively saving her life. And when a 56-year-old woman slipped into a coma, doctors turned to her detailed Facebook status updates on her health for an outline of her symptoms and medical history.

All three are stark examples of how this new-found and sometimes odd lack of privacy can be a saving grace. Could our culture of over-sharing actually be leading us down a road to improved healthcare? Is friending a doctor on Facebook a shortcut to a faster diagnosis?

Not if the British Medical Association has anything to say about it. They recently released new guidelines for members, urging them not to blur the lines between work and play by accepting Facebook requests from patients. Lack of privacy and liability fears are just part of the trade-off for instant, free health advice between 'friends'.

But the model of instant patient-to-provider and patient-to-patient advice is in place thanks to the Mark Zuckerberg model. Now the Mayo Clinic is jumping on the trend with a new Facebook-esque social networking site for their own hospital patients and providers to communicate freely. "We want to provide the latest technology and enable the community to evolve in the directions it wants to go," says the clinic's social media director Lee Aase. Their goal is to let "the community define what is useful."

For now, it seems, what's most useful is having friends who care, even if you've only met on Facebook.

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