Blog: Memorialized in death—electronically

The reader comment sections on news websites and the Twitter-sphere can be nasty places. Unfortunately, it took the untimely death of Dr. Donald Liu to demonstrate that those electronic opinionators can be used for better purposes.

Liu, 50, was the surgeon in chief at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital since 2007, and he drowned in Lake Michigan on Aug. 5 after helping save two boys who were struggling in the water.

“Don's death personifies a life that was devoted to saving children,” wrote University of Chicago officials on the school's website.

Comment sections on news websites have become venues for mean-spirited snipes by people emboldened by the anonymity that they offer. In sharp contrast to this typical order of business, the comment sections following news story about Liu's death were filled with tributes from Liu's former patients and others.

“Dr. Liu performed gtube surgery on our son Elijah who has multiple disabilities,” wrote a commenter on the Chicago Tribune website. “This surgery changed his life. Allowing him to get the nutrition and strength that he needed. What we remember most is Dr Liu's smile and how comfortable he made us feel.”

Another recent patient posted: “Dr. Liu just performed lung surgery on me on 7/26 that will hopefully save my life. He truly was a brilliant man and an unbelievable surgeon.”

Dr. Niraj Gusani, a surgical oncologist at Penn State, tweeted: “He was a great teacher,” and “Dr. Liu taught us so much.”

Other Twitter tributes came from Dr. Robert Wachter and “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Capt. Sully Sullenberger, who called Dr. Liu “a true American hero.”

Before writing this post, however, I took a second look at what was being posted. And sure enough, the Internet's braying jackass choir was making its presence known.

There were a few perhaps well-meaning comments from folks giving tips on water safety, but these were followed by people bashing the parents of the boys Liu had rescued.

Others included non sequitur blasting of the media; one pulled a quote about the danger of riptides from an old “Partridge Family” television show; and others had to use the occasion as another opportunity to make political attacks against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The worst was perhaps this comment from beneath the story in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Why the pic of Rahm? I am sick of the ST and Rahm. Report the news from now on. Sorry about the dead doctor, he save (sic) my son's life.” Ah, priorities.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks.