news

Tony, 79, noticed his Facebook friend was acting strangely. His actions saved her life.

Tony Pritchard was 78 years old when he learnt how to use Facebook.

After a career as an aircraft engineer, the now 79-year-old found himself with a lot more time on his hands, and a desire to “get into computers”.

“Things have moved on a lot since I was involved with them,” he tells Mamamia. Although Tony owned a tablet, he didn’t really know how to use it.

“I had one of my sister’s granddaughters stay with us in Australia and she was able to book air fares around the world, and use Skype. And that’s what I wanted to do,” he continued.

What would you do if you got the worst news of your life? Briony Benjamin documented her experience with fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Post continues below.

Video by MMC

That’s when he enrolled in a Telstra Tech Savvy Senior class in his hometown of Warwick, South West Queensland. The classes are a partnership between Telstra and the Queensland Government, which aims to give older Australians technological skills to help them socialise, access important services, and conduct personal business, from banking to online shopping.

Eventually Tony would go on to create a Facebook profile, where he would become friends with an American woman named Kathy Wicks. The mother-of-six lived over 15,000 kilometres away in Virginia, drove a Winnebago, and shared the exact same birthday as Tony’s.

Although he isn’t sure exactly how they got in contact, Tony says she initially reached out to him.

“I think she contacted me actually. I can’t remember what happened, we just started talking,” he says.

“There’s a song by John Denver, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. He talks about the ‘blue-ridge mountains,’ and the ‘mountain mamas’. She’s one of them.”

staph infection Facebook diagnosis
"I think she contacted me actually. I can't remember what happened, we just started talking," he says of his friendship with Kathy. Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

But after three months of messaging and Facebook messenger calls, Tony noticed a change in Kathy's behaviour.

"She was slurring, and contradicting herself, and then she went dead. I left it a little while, and tried to contact her again. I didn't have any telephone number, or address, and wondered what on earth I could do about it," he says.

"I just had a feeling that something was seriously wrong. Normally she's a very straight person, but she just wasn't lucid.

"I thought right, she must have other friends, so I searched through her Facebook friends list and two of them happened to be her daughters, so I messaged them. I didn't know they were her daughters, they just had the same surname."

At the time Kathy's daughters lived in North Carolina but they got into contact with another relative who went to her house to find her. When they did, she found their mother "stacked out on the floor".

The 69-year-old was suffering from septicemia, a very serious bloodstream infection, the symptoms of which include low blood pressure, chills, fever, and in its more severe cases, mental confusion and nausea. The condition can also head to sepsis, which if not immediately treated, can lead to organ failure and death in as little as 12 hours.

"This was what she had, even though her heart had shut down, and her kidneys had shut down. People who go into septic shock can die in about 12 hours, and some doctors just don't recognise it, which is what happened in this case," says Tony.

"Her heart stopped again during the hours drive it took them to transport her from her house to the hospital.

"They already had a heart surgeon waiting for her, but they couldn't do anything for her."

staph infection Facebook diagnosis
"I thought right, she must have other friends, so I searched through her Facebook friends list and two of them happened to be her daughters, so I messaged them." Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

It's believed Kathy had contracted the infection due to a valve that had been inserted years ago from chemotherapy.  At the time of her hospital admission, her body was riddled with 11 superbugs (bacteria strains which are resistant to antibiotics).

"They eventually had to move her on to Charleston hospital, which is one of the big hospitals in America, she had seven doctors working on her," says Tony.

"The nurses told her that they had never seen seven doctors work on anyone before, and somewhere along the line they came up with the right combination of antibiotics."

Thanks to Tony's early intervention, Kathy has made a full recovery. During her treatment, the friends continued to chat over Facebook, and continue to regularly do so today. Although they're yet to make plans to meet each other in person, Tony says "you never know what happens in the future".

"While she was in hospital bored witless, I was able to find a lot of video music to send to her. Keep her jollying a long," he adds.

"I spoke with her today and she had been to the hospital for a check up yesterday, and everything is fine."

staph infection Facebook diagnosis
Tony and his wife, Kath, with his Telstra Tech Savvy Senior teachers. Image: Supplied.

Now that Tony is adept in using Facebook and his tablet - adding that Google Earth is one of his favourite applications - he plans on doing another Telstra Techy Savvy Seniors course in smart phones.

"It's just adopting a different attitude. Younger people often press buttons to see what happens, but the older people want to know what will happen before they press them," he says.

"I've got 70 friends on Facebook at the moment. The beauty of it is that a lot of people are going to nursing homes as they older, and they're sitting there, looking at the walls, but with this, they've got connection with their families, even if they're living 200 miles away.

"It's amazing what you can do about it."

For more information about Telstra's Tech Savvy Senior classes, you can visit their website here.

00:00 / ???