Tiffany’s accent reveals that she has lived all her life in the same place: the small towns that dot the borders where Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama meet. She and her husband, Dustin, fell in love when they were teenagers and had two children.
Tiffany went to college while raising her babies, then graduated and took a job at CHI Memorial Hospital Chattanooga. She started out as a nurse caring for non-critical care cardiac patients, but she found herself calling intensive care unit and emergency teams.
In her personal life, Tiffany considered herself shy and sheltered. But to her own surprise, she thrived at working in the most chaotic of situations: the moments when a wasted second or a single mistake could mean the difference between life and death. She felt calm in that chaos. And in 2020, after nearly 10 years at CHI Memorial, her boss announced that she was leaving and that Tiffany would be promoted to interim manager.
Before she could feel comfortable in her new role, the pandemic hit. And Tiffany’s unit, which previously cared for heart patients, had a new mandate. It would be the Covid pavilion.
The work was exhausting. In addition to their regular nursing duties, the patients needed to be on their stomachs or turned over several times a day just to breathe. Since visitors were not yet allowed, the nurses showed iPads so families could say goodbye. The unit was always full and his patients were always very sick.
“There were times when he felt hopeless,” says Tiffany. “Almost as if we were a hospice unit. Death after death, after death.»
December 2020 had been the deadliest month of the pandemic, and the Tiffany unit was exceptionally busy the day the covid vaccines arrived at CHI Memorial. Tiffany was delighted to receive hers, even more so for what it meant: soon everyone would have access to vaccines and the constant dying would stop.
She hadn’t had a minute for lunch, so when it was time to get vaccinated, Tiffany grabbed a piece of sushi from a coworker and headed to the staging area, where news cameras were waiting to capture the occasion.
In a video that continues to make the rounds on the internet, Tiffany sits at one of three vaccination stations. Her dark brown hair is parted to the left, her hands are neatly folded in her lap. Someone in a white coat gives her the injection in her left arm, and Tiffany applauds.
Minutes later, Tiffany was asked to speak in front of the assembled cameras. Tiffany didn’t know that news stations were live-streaming the footage on Facebook, but she was happy to talk on camera. Yet as Tiffany rose and spoke, a familiar wave washed over her. Her arm began to throb, she grew sweaty and dizzy, and all she could do was say, «I’m sorry,» before passing out in the arms of two nearby doctors.
“I really wanted to say what this vaccine meant to me,” Tiffany says now. “I thought I could go ahead because it was important to me and I thought my body might respect that, but it didn’t care. She did what she does”.
Tiffany came to and was interviewed almost immediately by NBC affiliate WRCB of Chattanooga, Tennessee, on video. She told the reporter that she was prone to fainting, usually when she was in pain, but that she was fine. She then she went back to work.
Back in his unit, he told a coworker what had happened.
«Yes, I know,» he said. «I saw it. It was live on Facebook.»
Still, he convinced her that she needn’t worry. It was just a local news station. How bad could it be?
It turns out that very. Within 24 hours, Tiffany, or as she was called at the time, «Nurse from Tennessee,» was trending across all social media platforms. That night, she appeared on the Internet conspiracy theory show Infowars. New videos about Tiffany were posted on YouTube every 19 minutes, according to Paola Pascual-Ferrá, an associate professor of communication at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, who was tracking the spread in real time. And Tiffany was going global: Most of the videos and posts about her were coming from outside the US, Pascual-Ferrá said.
The posts weren’t just replays of Tiffany’s downfall. Conspiracy theories were rapidly evolving with it seeming like the entire world was contributing to an investigation where the conclusion had already been determined. To the thousands of people posting about Tiffany, she didn’t just swoon. she was dead. And a fake death certificate began to circulate.
Meanwhile, the phone in CHI Memorial’s Covid unit rang non-stop. Both the media and the conspiracy theorists all wanted to talk to Tiffany.
“Imagine being in high-stress situations, emotions are already running high, and then the phone never stops ringing?” Tiffany says. «It’s enough to drive you crazy.»
Tiffany gained tens of thousands of followers on her personal Facebook and Instagram profiles, and the comments never stopped. She knew that she had to do something. So she opened the notes app on her phone and wrote drafts of what she might say in a video responding to the rumors.
But she never made that video. Neither did she respond to the thousands of comments from her on her social media pages. Because, she said, her employer told her not to.
Tiffany says that the day after she passed out, she got a call from CHI Memorial’s public relations department. The person on the phone said the hospital had been overwhelmed with care. She told Tiffany not to answer any outside calls and under no circumstances would she post on social media. She told Tiffany that the hospital would take care of things from here.
In a series of interviews and emails with NBC News from 2020 through March of this year, CHI Memorial Hospital has repeatedly denied knowledge of any directive asking Tiffany not to speak or post. In response to detailed emails from Tiffany’s account sent to the hospital and its parent company, CommonSpirit Health, CHI Memorial director of public relations Karen Long responded with a statement. She read in full: «We have no new information.»
On Monday, December 21, 2020, four days after she passed out, CHI Memorial revealed her plan. The official response was formed through a «collaboration between the marketing team and hospital executives,» Long said in a 2021 interview.
CHI Memorial posted a short video on their Facebook page. In it, Tiffany stands at the bottom of a staircase. She is surrounded by coworkers wearing masks and holding signs with the date and messages like «Nursing leadership stands with Tiffany!»
A non-exhaustive list of reasons why this video made everything worse: Neither Tiffany, nor anyone else, ever speaks. The entire team moves awkwardly for 21 seconds. They are all wearing masks. Tiffany forgot her white coat at home, so they put her in a vest that didn’t fit someone else. A colleague of hers curled her hair that morning and parted it in the middle, instead of parting it to the side like she was in the shot video. The lighting in this new video was much dimmer than in the room with the news cameras. So Tiffany’s electric blue eyes? You could barely see them.
“It didn’t suit us,” says Tiffany. “It made people suspicious, because if I’m fine, why don’t I just talk? Why are we standing there?
Far from being the proof of life the hospital hoped it would be, the new video was just fodder for conspiracy theorists who took it as evidence for a sprawling theory. They were now convinced that Tiffany was not only dead, but that the hospital and pharmaceutical companies had replaced her with a body double.
By the way, the video also created another victim. Conspiracy theorists seeking to identify the fake Tiffany are targeting Tiffany’s colleague, Amber Honea. Amber and Tiffany had worked together at CHI Memorial for years. They were good friends and, in addition to being quite alike, they had a lot in common; so much so, in fact, that one doctor jokingly called them by each other’s names.
Conspiracy theorists found Amber among Tiffany’s friends and in her photos and decided she must be a body double. They made videos about Amber and sent him messages from her.
Amber said she was accused of «participating in the biggest cover-up in history.» They called her a traitor to her country, her profession and her friend. They invoked her son. They harassed members of her extended family. They threatened to show up at her house.
“It was very scary and frustrating,” Amber said. “Tiffany and I had a lot of conversations about, what do we do? Where do we go from here? How do we approach this? Do we need a lawyer?
Amber, who left CHI Memorial in 2021, said administrators advised her not to say anything publicly but offered little further help. Amber said her employer suggested that she file a police report about the threats, but she never did because she felt the threats were «just a bunch of gibberish» and she had no evidence of a crime.
Of the hospital’s response, Amber said: «It wasn’t very supportive.»