Illustrations: Alicia Tatone

I Watched My Friend Dying on Facebook. But It Was All a GoFundMe Scam.

How a group of friends ended up donating over $100,000 to a sick friend — who was perfectly fine

Several winters ago, I watched as my old classmate Cindy was publicly dying on the internet.

I did this on Facebook, where her wisecracking, self-deprecating tone suddenly gave way to a somber third-person announcement that Cindy had been secretly battling chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a little-known neurological disorder with wide-ranging symptoms.

Cindy and I were not friends, exactly. We were acquaintances who had known each other in middle and high school in suburban Ontario. But we reconnected on Facebook in 2014, when she sent me a friend request shortly before the news of her illness broke. (OneZero is anonymizing Cindy out of respect for her family’s privacy.)

I probably hadn’t thought of Cindy in about 15 years, but I had an affectionate recollection. I also had a vague awareness of her family dysfunction when we were growing up, but she was always both funny and quick to laugh. I remember a slapstick need for attention tainted by a darker undertone — the proverbial clown crying on the inside. Scrolling through her pre-CIDP Facebook posts, I felt a sense of relief that she appeared happy — going to weddings, attending “girls’ nights,” finding work in childcare, and fawning over her apple-cheeked nephew.

Before her illness was announced, Cindy had been a chronic oversharer. She made jokes about her struggles with weight loss and her inability to nail down a boyfriend, and she invited all of her Facebook friends to her upcoming wedding, where she planned to marry a bag of Jalapeno & Cheddar Doritos. She also posted about temporarily abandoning waxing to grow an impressively robust mustache to fundraise for “Movember.”

But after the CIDP announcement, she disappeared from her own Facebook feed as close advocates took over and started posting on her behalf. They also added a new group page — Help Save Cindy’s Life — to update Cindy’s friends on the fine details of her failing health. She had built a tight-knit community, and now they were rallying.

Before her illness was announced, Cindy had been a chronic oversharer.

Cindy’s prognosis quickly worsened, and her close friends and family scrambled to raise funds for experimental medications using platforms like Facebook and GoFundMe. According to the GoFundMe campaign, which was launched in November 2014, “Cindy lost her sight completely, went into organ failure, suffered a massive stroke and as of recently, the nerves in her brain have been affected and leaving her speech impaired.”

She went into seclusion, and pictures showed her in bed at home, wearing a surgical mask with what appeared to be IV tubes attached to her arm. It was noted that CIDP has no known cure, but there was some hope pegged to a very pricey stem cell transplant. The only thing keeping Cindy alive was a cocktail of experimental medications that were not covered by Ontario’s public health care system — sadly, a not uncommon occurrence.

The dedication and mobilization of Cindy’s people, their instantly frantic response to her needs, and their constant affirmations of her importance in their lives touched me. “Cindy, you have so much support from everyone who knows you, never be afraid to reach out to any of us and ask for help,” wrote one friend on Facebook. “You are a true fighter and I believe you will get through this. Be strong and be you.”

But given the cost of her treatments, supporting Cindy often boiled down to direct donations. The GoFundMe account set a goal of 1.6 million Canadian dollars ($1.2 million dollars) and the cash poured in. According to a post from her caregiver on the group page, one supporter even sold his home in order to keep Cindy going.

It wasn’t until months later, when the crowdfunding campaign peaked at CA$126,584, that people in Cindy’s orbit started to realize something about the story was terribly wrong.

Access to sufficient medical care is limited in much of the world, even in countries with socialized medicine like Canada. But it is particularly limited — and expensive — for Americans. Even before the current pandemic, almost 30 million Americans did not have health insurance. In mid-May, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 27 million Americans had already lost their health insurance following mass layoffs related to the coronavirus.

As a result, individuals who get sick have turned to digital platforms to scrounge up scarce health care dollars. Instead of demanding funds from insurance companies, or the government, many of the sick plead with those closest to them. A 2016 survey from Pew Research Center found that one in five respondents had donated to a crowdfunding campaign, and that the most common type of donation was to help a friend or family in need. Crowdfunding for chemotherapy or a prosthetic leg is now common.

Since GoFundMe’s founding in 2010, around 250,000 campaigns have been launched to pay for health care costs, a full third of the site’s total campaigns, raising over $650 million in contributions. As far as we know, the vast majority of these campaigns are earnest pleas for help.

But not all.

There have been a number of high-profile scams. In a 2017 incident, a couple in New Jersey raised $400,000 to ostensibly benefit a generous homeless veteran who had given a woman his last $20 when she ran out of gas. It turned out that the entire narrative had been concocted by the trio after they met outside a casino, and the scam unraveled when the veteran complained he’d received only a small portion of the funds.

Some scammers have started crowdfunding campaigns in the names of other people’s dead children; others have wrongly claimed that their own children are sick or dead. At times, these scams have cast shade on the whole crowdfunding industry.

Scammers have started crowdfunding campaigns in the names of other people’s dead children; others have wrongly claimed that their own children are sick or dead.

The temptation to scam on crowdfunding platforms is undeniable. For one, it’s much harder to arbitrate the validity of someone’s need over the internet than if you’re sitting in a living room together. “Going to an emergency room and pretending to have a heart attack comes with all sorts of traps, but if you say it online, you’re just misleading other people and that’s easy enough to do,” says Marc Feldman, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Alabama and author of the book Dying to Be Ill: True Stories of Medical Deception. “There’s really no acting involved when you do it exclusively online.”

In turn, platforms like GoFundMe (which has, in recent years, gobbled up competitors like GiveForward and CrowdRise) have come under increased scrutiny. GoFundMe has introduced a trust and safety team, which includes former members of law enforcement whose full-time job is to sniff out fraudulent requests and spoof copycat campaigns. The company pledges that all donors will be fully refunded if their donations are misdirected.

GoFundMe provides potential donors a short list of red flags to look out for so they can suss out scams. One of the items asks, “Are direct friends and family making donations and leaving supportive comments?” The checklist suggests that contributions from friends and family can help demonstrate that a cause is legitimate.

But what if friends and family members are being duped, too?

I had been a periodic user of Facebook for years — occasionally spying on old boyfriends, joining but rarely participating in professional development groups, and counting how many people wished me happy birthday.

But when Cindy got sick, I found myself glued to the platform. Every morning in late 2014 and early 2015, I made myself coffee and looked for news about her condition. Cindy was so sick that she was in total seclusion, so the only way to check in on her was to log on. Because of that, a growing online community flourished. And everyone, it seemed, was eager for Cindy to get better and return to the lovable goofball they were so devoted to, the class ham I had occasionally shared a bench with in gym class.

Through Facebook, I learned that Cindy’s valiant fight with CIDP actually started three years earlier. Since 2011, she had been suffering largely in silence, her escalating symptoms unknown to those closest to her until the situation suddenly became dire.

At over CA$7,000 a week Cindy’s medications were exorbitantly expensive. If this treatment regimen could somehow tip Cindy into remission, one of Cindy’s emissaries explained, then she would become a candidate for a stem cell transplant that would save her life. But the cost of the medications was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the stem cell transplant, tentatively organized in partnership with an American hospital at a price of CA$500,000.

Raising such an enormous sum seemed like an incredibly steep hill to climb, but Cindy’s supporters were determined, and organized. A woman named Hilary, Cindy’s best friend of many years, led the fundraising charge, drawing on her intimate knowledge of Cindy to inspire others. “Cindy is truly one of a kind, with a heart that is bigger than this world!,” Hilary wrote on the GoFundMe campaign. “She will do whatever she can, with the resources she has to help others. She is always paying it forward, to family, friends and her community. She is passionate about human rights and equality, never afraid to stand up for what’s right. With her incredible sense of humor, determination and love for everyone, Cindy has gained the love ad [sic] respect of many and always leaves a lasting impression wherever she goes!”

“Cindy is truly one of a kind, with a heart that is bigger than this world!”

A series of fundraising events were organized, including a bottle drive and “an evening of fun and laughter” comedy show at a nightclub close to the indoor roller rink that was central to my early adolescence. The “Help Save Cindy’s Life” page on Facebook had a “shop now” option, where well-wishers could purchase donated goods, like handmade beaded necklaces or a half-hour reflexology session.

Cindy and her hundreds of supporters took advantage of a number of online tools to raise money. A garage sale was organized through snapd, a platform for community events. In periodic YouTube videos, Cindy displayed the generous gifts friends donated and the medical equipment she was able to buy. In addition to GoFundMe and Facebook, the support group — which included friends, acquaintances, some of Cindy’s family members, and other more distant connections sucked into her orbit — turned to to sell donated items, including a “Niagara Falls Getaway,” a “Pampered pooch deluxe kit” (including a dog bed and organic treats), and costume jewelry. Almost all of the items sold, and, in a reunion of sorts, I watched as old classmates I’d long ago forgotten emerge to claim them.

It was in mid-March that Cindy’s caregiver took to Facebook to announce that one of Cindy’s friends, in a spectacularly loving and shocking gesture, sold his home to help keep Cindy alive. The price of the house was never disclosed, but it was, according to Cindy’s nurse Chris, reduced to sell “against the advice of his real estate agent.” If this kind of generosity didn’t motivate others to give until it hurt, what would?

Despite all that support, it appeared as if Cindy was losing her battle with CIDP. Cindy’s home nurses — three men named Tom, Chris, and Jeff who never appeared in photos or seemed to have their own social media profiles — took over her Facebook account to update Cindy’s friends on her condition, alternating desperate pleas for help with small, endearing details of Cindy’s new normal.

One of Cindy’s friends, in a spectacularly loving and shocking gesture, sold his home to help keep Cindy alive.

Back in December of 2014, about a month after the GoFundMe was launched, Nurse Tom had posted a warning on Facebook — one of many such warnings that would continue into the spring. Cindy was rapidly deteriorating and desperately needed money to keep her alive. “We don’t know if she will ever be well enough to get her stem cell transplant but let’s give her the best life we can, while she’s still with us,” he wrote. “Please, dig deep into your hearts, instead of that morning coffee, would you consider donating that dollar in Cindy’s name? I am begging you all. I see her everyday and what she goes through. The pain, the IV’s, the 32 oral medications, the aches, the chronic fever, the internal infections, the tiredness and I hear her silent cries behind closed doors. Help me save her. Please. I am asking, begging with all I have left in me.”

Cindy couldn’t seem to catch a break, and the terrible toll of her illness mounted: According to one update, she was hospitalized against her will when she had a bad reaction to new medicine, and then had to be airlifted to another hospital; she was chronically short of lifesaving medication and repeatedly just weeks from death. A local law firm run by the father of my close childhood friend drew up Cindy’s will pro bono and donated CA$800.

Still, Cindy was clearly fighting as hard as she could. Her battle against CIDP appeared simultaneously valiant and miserable. A fundraising video from December 2014 — where Cindy was depicted as locked in a desperate race against time — was underscored by the Mariah Carey song, “Hero.” Nurse Chris posted on Facebook about Cindy’s dramatic rally against her illness on December 21, 2014: “Cindy woke up crying and grabbing at her breathing tube. The doctors removed it and she is breathing on her own!! With her left hand, she felt her body and felt all the wires and tubes. I was holding her hand, telling her I was here with her… She is a miracle!”

Maybe she was a miracle. Not long after Cindy went blind, one of her nurses — all of whom clearly adored Cindy and mirrored her wacky, self-deprecating tone in their Facebook posts — commented on the arrival of some cash that had been mailed by concerned friends. Cindy was severely weakened, the post noted, but she had taken that money out of the envelope, used the Braille on the bills to count it, and was immediately overcome by the generosity.

In April of 2015, Cindy’s fundraising garage sale was suddenly canceled, sparking general confusion. Her supporters were outraged, almost crazed, about what the failure to raise funds might mean for a woman who was chronically on the verge of losing access to lifesaving medications. But social media details of Cindy’s well-being were suddenly scarce.

“l am sure they can’t stop you from letting us know if she is even still alive????” wrote one friend on her Facebook page. “And if she is [sic] where is all the money coming from to pay for the meds??? Please let us know to ease our hearts and minds.” Once the garage sale was canceled, it seemed like everyone was suddenly asking questions.

Something else was off too: Over the previous months of crowdfunding, Cindy’s close friends had turned to the media in the hope that coverage could help with desperately needed fundraising. In mid-March, a couple of weeks before the garage sale was canceled, a local reporter named Nicole O’Reilly started to become skeptical of Cindy’s plight. She interviewed Cindy’s best friend and sister, but neither was able to provide key details about her condition.

“l am sure they can’t stop you from letting us know if she is even still alive????”

“The more I kept asking questions about what medications she was on, the names of her doctors, they couldn’t give me any specifics,” says O’Reilly, who works for the Hamilton Spectator. “They told me I couldn’t interview Cindy because she was immune-compromised and could no longer speak. We kept going round and round and I wasn’t getting answers that made me feel like this was solid.” O’Reilly killed the story and one of her colleagues contacted the police.

Then in May, the bottom fell out. A Cindy Facebook supporter who also happened to live nearby posted that she’d seen Cindy leaving her apartment. Cindy was neither blind nor confined to a wheelchair — in fact, she was walking on her own, carrying a basket of laundry. A new reality dawned on the group: They’d been ripped off.

On May 7, Cindy’s mother addressed a barrage of questions, writing in a short Facebook post that an investigation was ongoing and that Cindy was “fine.” That same day, Cindy was arrested on one count of defrauding the public over CA$5,000 for faking a neurological disorder in order to profit from crowdfunding efforts. (The threshold for fraud in Canada’s criminal code is divided into either under or over CA$5,000.)

A police investigation led by the Halton Regional Police determined that Cindy never had CIDP, and she was never dying. She managed to dupe a couple of unwitting close friends into helping her fool hundreds of people online, they found, but the internet — including the platforms she utilized and the ease of creating an online community of supporters who had no firsthand knowledge of Cindy’s illness — really did most of the work.

Cindy’s story became a minor local scandal, with reports in several southern Ontario newspapers. One published picture showed her on her way from a pretrial hearing; she was staring straight ahead, looking annoyed and disheveled, wearing what appeared to be a stained green tracksuit. The journalist O’Reilly attended Cindy’s first appearance and said she “spectacularly collapsed” in the courtroom. “I don’t know if it was real or faked or from stress, but it was quite a scene,” says O’Reilly. “She seemed unwell.”

As part of a plea bargain, Cindy ultimately pled guilty to a charge of theft under $5,000 and, with no prior record, was sentenced to two years probation, including mandatory counseling. One report indicated that she had no supporters in the courtroom. The father of Hilary, Cindy’s biggest champion, read a victim impact statement.

A publication ban was enforced due to sensitive discussions of Cindy’s mental health history, and it makes it challenging to unpack exactly what happened. It’s also unclear how much money Cindy actually raised, but the police did seize a storage locker full of donated goods and medical equipment.

In the wake of the revelation, there was a lot of tsk-tsking and a reckoning of sorts. A store manager in the local mall had been so moved by Cindy’s story — which she heard when Cindy (in a motorized wheelchair) and her mother (who was crying) visited her store — that she had donated eight boxes of goods belonging to her deceased mother. Now, she wanted them back.

“I am ashamed of even caring.”

A vigorous discussion continued on Cindy’s Facebook page, with former friends sharing news stories and general disgust. After months of rallying in support, they were incredulous about being taken advantage of and her actions had left an understandably bitter taste. One friend noted that her office had given their Christmas donation to Cindy instead of a struggling local family. “I am ashamed of even caring,” wrote another.

Cindy’s sentence required her to stay off the internet after the ordeal, but a mutual friend told me that she was back on pretty quickly under a pseudonym — again mostly posting about her nephew, but this time to a much smaller circle of online friends. Cindy’s probation recently ended, and the entire incident was expunged from her record like it never happened.

She still lives in a tidy but modest high-rise apartment building across the street from Lake Ontario, and old friends who have largely cut ties occasionally still see her out running errands. The enduring consequences in cases like this seem to be personal rather than criminal. “I’ll donate to keep her in jail!” wrote one of Cindy’s former friends after she was busted.

My feelings about Cindy’s fraud were more complicated, though. It took me months before I understood both why I couldn’t stop watching and why, every time I looked at a picture of Cindy or read about her case, I felt a distinct stirring in the pit of my stomach.

Cindy is far from the only young-ish woman ripping off friends and family members on the internet, using social media and crowdfunding sites to raise funds with bogus stories of illness and personal tragedy.

“If I had a typical person I wrote about, it’s a white woman who is 24, a little bit socially awkward, and has experiences with depression,” says Taryn Harper Wright, who ran the popular scam-busting website Warrior Eli Hoax Group.

There’s the sorority girl who faked stomach cancer and had her friends push her wheelchair around to nonexistent chemotherapy appointments; the Alabama woman who stole over $260,000 through social media and two GoFundMe accounts, convincing even her young son that she was dying; the woman dubbed “the photogenic queen” of cancer fraudsters for lying about breast cancer to raise $12,000 in her small community.

The stories of women who fake being sick are sui generis and remarkably similar, rife with specific and theatrical detail, and generally motivated by some combination of attention-seeking and greed.

Wright says that, at first, she “just felt like Scooby-Doo solving a crime.” But, over time, she saw deep wounds in those who had been ripped off online. “There was all of the same genuine betrayal and hurt,” she says.

The stories of women who fake being sick are sui generis and remarkably similar.

Adrienne Gonzalez, who runs the site GoFraudMe, is just as committed to weeding out fakers as Wright. A sample headline from GoFraudMe: “Colorado Woman Accused of Faking Bone Cancer, Stealing From Friends, and Generally Being an A*hole.” The GoFraudMe Facebook page recently chronicled the tales of newly bereaved parents who learned that a fraudster was using pictures of their dead son to raise money and an adult dancer trying to crowdfund for her recovery even though, as one commenter noted, “the video I saw of the fall shows her twerking after.” (It’s worth noting that GoFraudMe tends to report on crowdfunding scams that have already been determined to be fraudulent.)

Gonzalez says that women overwhelmingly orchestrate the fake medical campaigns she sees — she hasn’t run the numbers but estimates it could be as high as 95%. “I don’t think they wake up in the morning and say, I’m going to scam someone,” she says. “I think it’s more complicated than that. And I think the basis is found in ‘Munchausen by Internet,’ whether it’s the need for attention or something else.”

“Munchausen by Internet,” a term coined by Marc Feldman, the University of Alabama psychiatrist who specializes in factitious disorders, describes individuals who feign or exaggerate medical conditions primarily online. They may also create fake “sockpuppet” accounts or alternate personalities — posting as a concerned friend or nurse, for example — in order to lend the ruse greater credibility. Feldman says this kind of behavior disproportionately presents in younger women and posits that’s because women tend to act out in more socially sanctioned ways. “When men act out, they end up in prison,” he says. “Women end up in doctor’s offices.”

Feldman refers to a collection of associated factitious behaviors as “disease forgery:” falsely reporting illness; feigning illness, including episodes like mimicking seizures; falsifying lab reports; exaggerating or aggravating an existing condition; inducing an actual ailment through self-harm; and dissimulating or avoiding treatment so that a minor medical problem becomes serious. But they mostly go through the motions of being ill on social media.

Cancer is the most popular choice of internet fakers, says Feldman, in part because of the language and perspectives we have collectively established. “Battling cancer allows a person to adopt a certain heroic stance,” he says. “We talk about cancer survivors as warriors and it all seems so admirable.” In one fraudulent crowdfunding case he studied, a woman shaved her hair and brows, claiming the hair loss was from chemotherapy, and even tattooed the words “won’t quit” on her knuckles. (All of which was, of course, prominently displayed on social media.)

But sometimes scammers choose something more obscure. “People pick esoteric illnesses that people have had very little exposure to so they don’t know what it should look and sound like,” says Feldman. “It makes the deception that much easier.”

Wright says that the signs of a scam are genuinely unique to each case, but there are some general tells. When someone is blogging about a legitimate illness, she notes — even in the most extreme cases — there are days of tedium: lying on the couch binge-watching Netflix or sitting on the porch, a weary face turned to the sun. “Constant drama is a big red flag,” she says. “[In legitimate illnesses,] every day is not this big dramatic roller coaster, where you have a bone marrow transplant one day and the next day your cousin dies in a car crash and the next day the dog runs away and the house burns down. With the scammers, every day is sweeps week.”

As questions about veracity abound, it can be incredibly difficult to ascertain any credible proof about someone else’s illness. We are not entitled to see someone’s medical records, nor are we conditioned to ask. GoFraudMe’s Gonzalez makes the case that GoFundMe has become “like a personal journal,” where people are already revealing intimate details of their lives. “Health is a very private issue but do you still have the right to privacy as a patient if you’re putting your story out there to solicit money?” she asks. “Does giving someone $5 give you the right to ask intrusive questions?” Questions about privacy are also being raised in the context of scam hunter communities harassing individuals, some of whom are legitimately unwell.

I wondered if Cindy’s case was complicated by more than one type of greed. And that marks a fundamental difference between the standard malingerer and Munchausen by Internet, says Feldman. “I think the bulk of people who look to raise money through crowdfunding schemes do so not so much for the money but for the care and concern they’re able to mobilize,” he says. “They tend to be people with poor people skills, people with personality disorders, which means they have trouble getting their needs met in healthy ways and resort to desperate measures.”

I wondered if Cindy’s case was complicated by more than one type of greed.

On one hand, Cindy’s two-year probation sentence didn’t seemingly square with the level of hurt and exploitation she participated in. On the other, it appears that Cindy was badly damaged almost from the very beginning. One early fundraising post ran through a lifetime of bad luck, including childhood trauma, being placed in foster care, having a pacemaker implanted at the age of 32, and being hit by a car. It’s unclear which of those things are true, but it’s easy to imagine that she was much less content than she appeared when I was initially scanning her Facebook pictures.

Reading over the posts written by “Nurse Tom,” who I suspect was an alter ego, I wonder now if Cindy was just telling herself the things she needed to hear. “I have been a nurse for ten years now and I can honestly say that it has been a pleasure and an honor to work with a patient such as her self,” wrote Tom. “She is my inspiration and why I love coming to work… I am so blessed to call her my friend amongst all of you wonderful people.”

As I looked around for evidence of why women seem to disproportionately perpetrate these scams, I realized something else: The most proximate victims also tend to be women.

When I reached out to Cindy to tell her that I wanted to write about her, she was initially warm and gracious. But the conversation quickly turned volatile when I made clear that I hoped to interview her on the record. She has since blocked me on social media.

Wright suggests that the women who perpetrate these scams can’t bring themselves to take legitimate social risks so they simply copy the narratives of people who they believe deserve attention. “It seems like a desperate need to scream into the void, ‘Look at me,’” she says. These are people who are ill, she believes, but not necessarily in a socially sanctioned way. “People who have cancer get friends who donate and who band together to create meal plans. When you have depression or some other mental illness, you can’t even talk about it. So maybe you manifest it in a way that’s more socially acceptable?”

As I looked around for evidence of why women seem to disproportionately perpetrate these scams, I realized something else: The most proximate victims also tend to be women. In response to pleas for help, it’s often women who organize the fundraisers or start the crowdfunding pages or host the bake sales., a fundraising platform for “social causes” including personal medical expenses, reports that women make 65% of donations.

In the virtual world, just as IRL, women are the default caregivers and the suppliers of empathy. And perhaps, because of that prevailing norm, the women who fake being sick are more likely to appreciate the compassion they receive for the lie, to perceive the hit of validation it delivers as a form of social currency. “I’ve taken care of people since I was young,” one busted ovarian cancer faker told a reporter. “I don’t know, something went off. I guess I was just done taking care of people.”

Pretending that you have cancer to elicit sympathy and bilk friends and family out of money is terrible for all kinds of personal reasons, but it also contributes to a much broader breakdown of an essential social compact — one where our default position is to believe people who ask for help with their extraordinary circumstances or plain bad luck.

Despite pleas from classmates to help Cindy over the course of her crowdfunding campaigns, I held onto my money. I was familiar with the range of empathy, helplessness, and determination I was supposed to feel in response to this kind of appeal, but I instead felt a terrible gnawing suspicion. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

Despite pleas from classmates to help Cindy over the course of her crowdfunding campaigns, I held onto my money.

I later learned that several people had doubts about Cindy’s story. “Someone tipped me off that something wasn’t right pretty early,” says C.K., a mutual friend who donated a TV to the fundraising auction for Cindy but little cash. She felt a strange sense of relief when she found out that the whole thing was a lie, largely because she had been feeling guilty. “I could have done more to help a friend from high school,” she says. “But once someone whispered [those doubts] in my ear, the wheels started turning.”

But, as far as I know, no one challenged the narrative in public. I couldn’t help but wonder about my own lack of action. I didn’t want to be the person calling out a supposedly dying girl on Facebook based on a weird feeling. What if I was wrong?

I had another reason for not giving Cindy money: I was already tapped out from the fundraising campaign for my good friend, Pat, who really did have leukemia and really did have a stem cell transplant and really did exhaust all of his treatment options in Canada and really did need help coming up with hundreds of thousands of dollars so he could participate in an experimental study.

In the end, Pat was too sick for the study, even though we were able to raise the money from friends and family on He developed graft versus host disease — a brutal complement to his cancer related to the stem cell transplant — and I actually fell to my knees in my kitchen, like I was in a TV movie, when I got the news of his secondary infection. At that moment, I knew with a piercing certainty that Pat was going to die even though we had tried everything.

I was already tapped out from the fundraising campaign for my good friend, Pat, who really did have leukemia and really did have a stem cell transplant.

But what if Pat never had a chance, to begin with? What if he didn’t have access to health care or friends and family with deep pockets, and instead had to ask the random internet to adjudicate whether he would live or die? What if a successful crowdfunding campaign was the one thing standing between him and the chance of survival but onlookers thought it was a scam because of someone like Cindy?

Pat died in June 2015, just days before his 35th birthday, and the unstoppable tragedy forced some of us into rueful reflection about how things could have been different, and many more of us into therapy. Five years later, I’m still not sure how to react.

The challenges of my grief and that of my friends in the aftermath of Pat’s death, a time when we hung on each other like every bone was broken, made it doubly hard to watch Cindy blow up so many of her close relationships for an unnecessary lie.

And yet, once I realized Cindy had been lying, all of the compassion I had been cautiously withholding came flooding in — even more for her than for those who had been victimized.

There was something so fundamentally sound and well-adjusted about the unquestioning generosity of those who rallied around Cindy, and about the groundswell of financial and emotional support she received even from people who appeared to be short on both. I knew how awful it was to learn that you can’t save someone, and how extraordinary it was to watch people try. Cindy’s friends were stung, and badly, but would hopefully shake off their distrust and continue to take care of those closest to them.

But Cindy built a loving community and then obliterated it, almost as if she felt she had no other choice or nothing to lose. And that’s symptomatic of something so utterly broken I can’t envision ever being able to put it back together.

Writer and podcast host/producer in Nova Scotia

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