It was a hot August day when Mandi came into my life. We were about the same age – her 35 to my 38 – and she had long dark hair and sad-looking brown eyes. Like me, she was recently married. And like me, she had a heart condition.
As Mandi lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our relationship blossomed online, through a Facebook group for people with an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) – a device placed under the skin of the chest to protect people with heart conditions from having sudden cardiac arrests.
It's pretty heavy subject matter but the group – which has upwards of 5,000 members, many of whom are in their 20s, 30s or 40s – is anything but. Since I was diagnosed with a potentially deadly heart rhythm a couple of years ago and had an ICD fitted, it has been an invaluable source of support.
Mandi became a trusted member of our community, posting frequently about her anxieties. So, naturally, we were all sad when, a few weeks later, she posted pictures of herself – a young mum – wired up to monitors in a hospital bed with her husband by her side, accompanied by some worrying heart and blood-pressure readings. 'The hospital has been my home more than my house,' she wrote, but she expressed concern that doctors weren't taking her seriously.
We were beside ourselves when she announced she wanted to transfer to a bigger hospital with a better cardiac unit, but didn't have the $30 bus fare (she didn't ask for the money). As the days rolled by, Mandi's husband took over posting, asking people to 'pray for Mandi', saying that she was now in the right place but needed surgery. He said his boss had fired him, but there was nowhere else he'd rather be than at Mandi's bedside, and thanked us for our support.
I wept, not only for Mandi, but also for me, knowing that this could be my fate, too
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We eagerly awaited updates. Then, one day, the worst news imaginable came. Mandi had died. On that Saturday morning I sat down at the breakfast table thousands of miles away in London and wept on my husband's shoulder, not only for Mandi, but also for me, for having this heart condition and knowing that this could be my fate, too.
As we waited for more information, suspicions began to be raised by some members of the group. Photographs of Mandi appeared in internet searches, claiming she was a fraudster. She had criminal convictions and had previously claimed to suffer from motor neurone disease – among other illnesses.
People found aliases, and closer inspection of her hospital pictures revealed another surname on the admission bracelet. Some members of the group admitted to sending her the bus fare via PayPal, and anyone who tried to make contact with her was blocked.
All that could be done was to report her and try to recoup any money. Of course, it's made me think twice about using online support groups. In the wake of the ordeal, the moderator of our group issued three bits of advice: to remain sceptical of anyone who is overly sentimental, posts in someone else's name, or asks for small amounts of money.
I didn't contribute financially but like many of us I invested emotionally – and am left feeling gullible and sad. We were sucked in by Mandi and she exploited our kindness. For the first time in weeks I've looked at her public Facebook profile. It seems she's come back from the dead and is claiming she's adopted. So perhaps one thing Mandi said was true – she is a very sick person indeed.