GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For Dr. David Bukard, his faith has always been important to him. He leads a local youth group, runs a Christian Camp and grew up loving God and science.
“I did this because I genuinely love building relationships with patients and helping them through some of their hardest moments. That’s what emergency medicine is. That’s what makes it so beautiful and so fun,” Dr. Burkhard said during a Zoom interview with FOX 17 on Wednesday. “Then, for all of a sudden for doctors to get this reputation for being liars or, you know, lacking integrity, that hurts a little deeper just because I don’t think we’ve ever had that before.”
Back in November Dr. Burkard, who works in the emergency department at Spectrum Health, battled COVID and made a post about it on Facebook. In it he described how his oxygen levels were so low he was hospitalized for a few days. He stated that anyone can get it, including healthy 28-year-olds like himself who run five times a week. He also encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing.
His post went viral. He did several TV interviews, including one with FOX 17, and national networks. It even caught the attention of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who read it during a live press conference. Many people commented “thoughts and prayers” or similar sentiments below his post.
However, others called him “fake,” and an “attention seeker,” and said his story was “fishy.” People made up lies that he had STDs and that was the reason he caught COVID. Dr. Burkard was astonished.
“I think the thing that hurt me the most is, I’m a man of faith,” Dr. Burkard said. “And, for some reason when I went with the story like the thing that people kept calling me was like a heathen, like I didn’t have faith.”
Dr. Shikha Jain said she wasn’t surprised. She co-authored a research letter that was published in Jan. 2021 about the harassment and cyberbullying doctors face. The study was conducted in 2019, but she said it’s been going on for years.
“We found that 1 in 4 physicians had been bullied or harassed on social media,” Dr. Jain said during a Zoom interview on Friday. “We found 1 in 6 women physicians had actually been sexually harassed or sexually had comments made through social media.”
Dr. Jain, who’s an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, worked alongside 2nd-year Northwestern University medical student Tricia Pendergrast and a few others for the study. She said physicians told them that bullies in the past have posted their addresses and phone numbers online, left bad reviews on Yelp pages and have walked into their offices screaming at them.
“There was a Jewish physician who reported being sort of trolled by people who would post holocaust pictures in comments,” said Pendergrast, who experienced bullying herself as a student. “We had a woman who identified as African American who said that she received threats of lynching and rape when she just discussed her civil right activism.”
Pendergrast stated that bullying can be so intense it'll negatively impact a physician’s emotional well-being. She recommended physicians decide for themselves how they would like to use their social media platforms, either for personal or professional reasons.
“The next thing is to figure out, and it’s fairly obvious most of the time, the difference between educating someone who doesn’t understand and dealing with trolls,” she said. “Because you will waste a lot of time and energy trying to educate people who do not want to understand what you’re talking about. They just want to infuriate you.”
Pendergrast added that online support groups are helpful as well, especially for people of color and marginalized communities. Most support groups have group chats and hold Zoom meetings where they check in with each other.
Dr. Jain said there’s groups like Shots Heard Across the World where physicians defend and help one another when they’re being attacked by anti-vaxxers. There’s also IMPACT, which she and a few other physicians created in Illinois, where she lives, in the beginning of the pandemic to make sure that frontline and healthcare workers were supported.
Dr. Jain added that it’s hard to catch the trolls. Even if a police report is filed, sometimes they’re hard to find because they have fake accounts, or they’re bots from other states or overseas. Nevertheless, she urges doctors to remain on social media to continue reporting their work and research.
“Our voices are important,” Dr. Jain said. “Part of the reason that our patients and communities are really struggling with finding information that’s accurate is because there aren’t enough of our voices out there really showing the science and the research, explaining why we are making the recommendation.”
Dr. Burkard said that was his only goal when he made the post back in November: to help people. He’s grateful that his family, friends and coworkers helped him get back on his feet. It took several weeks, and he’s since received the vaccine. However, he still hopes that his story will inspire people to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“I’ve been called anything from a clout chaser to a phony to a hoax. It really doesn’t bother me what people call me anymore as long as they hear my message of 'take it seriously,'” he said. “If people hear it enough times, and it changes one person’s mind, then it’s worth it to be called a silly name.”