The Virtual Caregiver

A woman becomes caregiver to a cancer patient she meets in a virtual world

Good deeds can take on a life of their own. What starts as a convenient gesture often grows to become a labor-intensive undertaking — though it may not feel like a burden, if it’s a labor of love.

That’s what happened to Beth, a mortgage underwriter in eastern Canada, when she ventured into the virtual world of Second Life. There, Beth became the virtual caregiver to a man suffering from cancer. But as their relationship in the virtual world grew, it spilled over into the real world, and has become a very real source of joy for them both, as they told Good Turns recently.

Not quite a video game, Second Life’s 3D environment provides for varied and colorful social interactions for millions of people around the world who enjoy meeting up to chat, dance, play games, and deck out their online selves (known as “avatars”) in everything from pajamas to evening gowns to robotic assault suits, bunny costumes, and much more. If you can think it up, you can probably find it — or create it yourself — in Second Life.

A fan of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Beth — in the person of her avatar, Nuala Maracas — had gone dancing at a virtual nightclub in Second Life when she noticed the DJ there, an avatar called Trader Whiplash, was dressed as a picture-perfect replica of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “complete with garters and thigh-highs,” she recalls. “I thought he was pretty crazy.”

“I am not sure I can put into words just what Beth’s friendship and support has meant to me.”

But soon after they met in 2005, the pair struck up a friendship, and Beth soon learned that Gene — the New Jersey resident behind Trader Whiplash — suffered from a blood cancer known as Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, or CLL. “In 2007 I started chemotherapy,” Gene recalls. “For five months my life was turned upside down. I came to Second Life every night and spent time with Beth.”

“I became his virtual caregiver,” Beth says, providing a supportive virtual shoulder as they hung out and traveled the virtual world together.

Gene and Beth in real life

As the pair got to know each other better over the next couple of years, they began to meet outside of Second Life as well, starting on Thanksgiving weekend of 2007. “While he was going through his treatment, we just met and started traveling together in the real world,” Beth reports. The pair traveled together to Disney Land, Washington, DC, and New York, among other places, and visited each other in their home towns, with Trader making summer trips up to Canada, and Beth making trips to the States around Thanksgiving and other times of year.

“I am not sure I can put into words just what Beth’s friendship and support has meant to me,” Gene says. “During chemo it was invaluable. When you know there is someone who doesn’t judge you, who is there for you, who gets you, it’s special. We sometimes argue, we don’t always agree, but we always say goodnight and good morning and start and end our days as friends.”

Though CLL patients do not go “into remission,” Gene has not needed treatments in years. But the good turn that Beth has done for him in the past will likely be needed again. “My [blood cell] counts are again on the rise,” Gene notes. “But this time my attitude is so different. I know we will win again and I know Beth will be there if I simply ask her to be.”

“The type of blood cancer he has is going to come back.” Beth says. “And when that happens, I’ll be his caregiver.” A very real good turn, born of a virtual world.

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