Damar Hamlin's Devastating Injury Offered a Window into the Best and Worst of Twitter
Please continue to keep this young man and his family in your thoughts.
Like many of you, I was watching Monday Night Football when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin sustained an injury trying to tackle a Bengals player and went into cardiac arrest. We still do not know what happened to the 24-year-old to cause him to collapse, but expert cardiologists seem to believe he suffered a very rare event called commotio cordis.
Here’s Dr. Manesh Patel, chief of cardiology at Duke Medicine:
"It's possible you can get a trauma or a reset when the heart is in certain phase of the cycle," Patel said. "It can lead your heart to go into dangerous rhythm of ventricular defibrillation."
"The timing of it has to be such where [it was] in a few milliseconds," Patel said. "A lot of what happened here; it’s been described and seen in male athletes."
I remember when I was playing little league softball and the girls started hitting the ball so hard around age 10 that one pitcher in our league started wearing a small chest guard. I do not know if she had a pre-existing heart condition or if her parents were just being cautious to protect her from being hit by a line drive. But, she wore it every time.
While millions of viewers sat stunned and horrified as NFL medics delivered life-saving CPR and an AED defibrillator, Hamlin’s teammates openly wept. I knew it was bad and wanted more information, so I made the mistake of opening Twitter. I do not follow monsters or conspiracy theorists on there. But the problem is, a lot of good people I do follow retweet terrible takes from soulless trolls to dunk on them or shame them into either re-thinking their positions or simply deleting the offending tweets. I used to do this, too. Unfortunately, hurting people and/or getting a rise out of them only emboldens these trolls to accelerate their cravenness, and has the reverse intended effect of amplifying their noxious views to those who may be vulnerable to conspiracy theories.
I am talking about the people who used Hamlin’s catastrophic injury to do a victory dance about how the COVID-19 vaccine must have caused his heart to stop and that they were right all along about vaccines killing millions. These are not people with medical degrees, or any immunology schooling whatsoever. In fact, most of them seem driven by nothing more than anti-intellectualism, and wanting to use every single fathomable situation to score points on the Internet, as if Hamlin’s life-threatening situation was just another game in some non-real world simulation.
This issue is personal for me, as I developed a debilitating heart condition called POTS after catching COVID-19 last July and had to take heart failure medication twice a day for six months. I have received four doses of the vaccine, and did not have any heart problems at all after any of the jabs. The last vaccine dose I received before I got POTS happened nine months before I got sick. Simply put, the vaccine did not injure my heart. COVID-19 did.
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I am angry that these anti-vaxxers continue to spread misinformation online. It is making people hesitant to get vaccinated and it is costing an untold number of lives. Not everyone who refuses the jab is some kind of a-hole. Many (most) are good people who have been bombarded with conspiracy theories from bad actors trying to flood the zone with shit to confuse everyone or “own the libs” or whatever, when the vaccine should never have been a partisan issue. Hell, it’s Trump’s vaccine! And Operation Warp Speed was a wonderful thing his administration did!
I’m also mad that people were so quick to jump to conclusions before we had any information about what was happening. Did Hamlin have a pre-existing heart condition that made him vulnerable to this kind of injury? We don’t know.
Is it something besides commotio cordis? We don’t know!
But that didn’t stop Internet “experts” from jumping in and spewing wildly offensive nonsense that this young man’s family definitely saw. I know this because my beautiful friend Grant Wahl died suddenly in December while covering the World Cup due to a cardiac event, and his amazing wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, had to deal with the absolute scum of the earth tweeting at her and telling her he died from the COVID-19 vaccine. Gounder was a particularly juicy target for these scumbags, as she is a professor of infectious diseases at NYU’s Grossman’s School of Medicine, and was appointed to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force. So on top of losing the love of her life, she had to see comments from people telling her that he died, in part, because of her life’s work.
I’ve been on Twitter for 14 years and have long known it was bad for my soul. But reading the comments directed toward Celine broke something inside of me. I realized the social media platform has just become a place where the worst people can spew the most vile things with impunity, like a supercharged 4 chan or 8 chan. It’s gotten worse under Elon Musk as he’s re-instated white nationalists and other prominent conspiracy theorists who had previously been banned, but the problem existed long before we were all subjected to Musk’s midlife crisis.
And so I decided to completely change the way I use the site. I no longer wake up and log on before I roll out of bed to pee. I will continue to use it to tweet out links to my writing, and to direct-message friends and to send compliments to people who bring goodness into the world. I will log on when something catastrophic happens (like I did with Hamlin) so I can get more real-time information. And I’ll probably also log on during the Oscars and the Super Bowl and the World Series or other fun events where the live running commentary is fun.
But the whole place feels like a 24/7 war zone that’s unhealthy for all of us. I’ve barely used It for the last 10 days or so, and while my mental health is largely the same (so far), I can tell you that my productivity has skyrocketed. I’ve been writing more regularly. I have more energy to do dishes and take out the trash and organize my junk drawers. I’ve been volunteering at the Hollywood Food Coalition two nights a week instead of just on Fridays. I’m finally reading The Overstory.
For the past six years I’ve thought that battling creeps who try to score points against grieving widows or terrified family members online was important. But now I’ve realized I can still fight for what I believe in using more productive, direct action that doesn’t drive my anxiety and depression through the roof.
I do want to say, however, that Twitter can still be used for good, especially when Buffalo Bills fans get involved. Somebody found out that Damar Hamlin had started a gofundme to raise money for toys for underprivileged kids in his hometown of Pittsburgh, because of course he did. I don’t know Hamlin, but from everything I’ve read he seems like a wonderful young man cut from the same cloth as the Rams’ Tremayne Anchrum, who quietly volunteered weekly with us at the Hollywood Food Coalition for years before his team even found out. He was recently honored as the Rams nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year, and Andrew Whitworth came in to the Coalition to surprise him with the league’s highest honor.
Anyway, somebody tweeted out a link to Hamlin’s toy drive, and it went viral. Before his injury he had not yet hit his fundraising goal of $2,500 for those kids. As I’m typing this, the amount raised now totals $6,438,130.
And I know first-hand how social media can help. It was a Twitter user who helped get me diagnosed with POTS after I posted my symptoms and asked for help. And my Twitter followers buy out everything on our Hollywood Food Coalition winter wishlist every year for our unhoused clients.
This generosity of strangers tells me that there is more good in the world than evil. It restores my hope.
As for how to deal with vile tweets, I don’t have all the answers. But maybe if you are reading this, and you are still on Twitter fighting the good fight, it might be time to stop amplifying those who seek to destroy our shared human decency, even if it is to point out how soulless they are. Because all it does is reach more vulnerable and isolated people, who, for whatever reason, are drawn into these conspiracy theories that are ripping our country apart and quite literally causing people to die.
I’m still reckoning with why I love a sport so violent as football, but that’s a newsletter for another day.
As for now, please be good to each other and spread kindness. And please send Damar Hamlin, his family, his friends and his teammates all the strength and well-wishes you can muster.
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