On a Zoom call last March, Katie Hisert, a pulmonologist, assistant professor and researcher at National Jewish Health in Denver, realized that she was on the verge of a panic attack. She and her critical care colleagues were discussing what they would do should they run out of ventilators for COVID-19 patients. Afterward, Hisert immediately took two shots of bourbon to calm her nerves. “I was so overwhelmed and was completely freaking out,” she says. Logging onto Facebook later that night, she could see that many of her friends were also experiencing high levels of anxiety, especially about what to, and not to, believe about COVID-19.
Hisert had never been a big public Facebook sharer — she mostly used the site to post photos of her cats, hikes and vacations viewable only by her friends — but she suddenly realized that she was in a unique position to evaluate available data about the pandemic and provide an informed opinion. “Here I am, a lung doctor who works in the ICU,” Hisert says. “I also study the immune response, and part of my job is to critically review the literature.”
Since March, Hisert has publicly posted about COVID-19 on Facebook dozens of times, covering topics ranging from social distancing and asymptomatic carriers to hydroxychloroquine and new virus variants. Her detailed posts sometimes garner more than 100 shares, including by colleagues as well as people outside of her circle of Facebook friends. “I recently asked my boss if I can put this on my annual review as public service,” Hisert laughs.
Hisert is new to social media-based activism, but her father, a lawyer, and her mother, an English teacher, instilled in their daughter a deep appreciation for communication skills. “One thing about this pandemic is that the general public is seeing science happen in real time, and it’s really hard for the public to understand the process,” Hisert says. “I try to help people differentiate between ‘This is not a true statement’ and ‘We don’t have that data yet.’”
In a way, communication is what first brought Hisert to medicine. Between her junior and senior year of high school, Hisert, who grew up in Berkeley, California, attended a STEM-themed summer camp at Northwestern University. She arrived most excited about the engineering classes. But thanks to an exceptional biochemistry teacher, she left with a newfound fascination for medicine and the science behind it. “Previously, all I knew about medicine was that you have to be in school for a really long time, and I had preconceived ideas about it being hard,” she says. “I didn’t realize when I was a kid that school is fun, and that I like doing the thing that’s hard.”
After college at Brown University, Hisert moved to New York City, where she completed her medical degree at Weill Cornell Medicine and residency at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at Rockefeller University. She next pursued a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle — not the least because the program offered two and a half years of “protected time to do science,” she says. Hisert wound up being a fellow for six years, conducting research supported by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on the role macrophages play in airway inflammation.
In 2019, Hisert moved to Denver to continue her work on cystic fibrosis at National Jewish Health, the largest adult cystic fibrosis clinic in the country. She took a brief break from cystic fibrosis after the pandemic began, when she spent a week in April working at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. There, Hisert bounced around floors to determine which COVID-19 patients needed admission into the ICU. The experience of witnessing the disease in all of its manifestations gave Hisert further confidence that she could speak with some authority about COVID-19.
Many of Hisert’s Facebook posts are aimed at correcting pandemic-related misinformation or confusion she sees in the news or on social media. In April, for example, an ER physician wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that stated that getting to the hospital earlier is an important factor in the outcome for COVID-19 patients, something “that’s just not true at all,” Hisert says. In a post shared 104 times, Hisert thoroughly detailed her thoughts on the story. “I think we could avoid a lot of ER traffic if people are checking their [oxygen levels] at home,” she wrote. “If you don’t need supplemental O2, stay home.”
In more recent treatises — as she jokingly calls her longer posts — Hisert has pushed back on anti-vaccine sentiment, explained the difference between virulence and transmissibility and critiqued media rhetoric about the virus “getting smarter” by evolving new variants. She always tries to write in as factual and apolitical a tone as possible, so as not to turn off conservative family and friends. Perhaps as a result, the bulk of the feedback she receives has been positive. In addition to posting on her own wall, Hisert also corrects misinformation she sees on friends’ walls or in comments sections. “It’s worth trying to state the truth and trying to correct someone’s falsehoods, because you just don’t know who will be reading it,” she says. “I also don’t like seeing friends get bullied by ill-informed people.”
Hisert is not sure how long she will keep up the social media activism — she does have a full-time career to attend to, after all — but for now, she is committed. “There’s a part of me that’s just a do-gooder and that cannot bear to see people get confused, misinformed or overwhelmed with angst due to a lack of reliable, solid information,” she says. “If there’s something I have that’s a unique skill that would benefit the public, then yes, I would like to contribute.”