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‘Nobody helped me’: Austria shaken by suicide of doctor trolled by anti-vaccine haters

Police in Austria downplayed threats and abuse sent to a small-town doctor. Her death is prompting questions across Europe about how to protect people from trolling and bullying

The first death threat arrived last November, on the very day Lisa-Maria Kellermayr was set to take over her own medical practice.

As she and her staff readied themselves to welcome their first patients in Seewalchen am Attersee, an idyllic lakeside town of 5,700, she received an email that outlined in painstaking detail how its author would come to Kellermayr’s office and slaughter her and her entire staff.

That message was the start of a harrowing seven-month ordeal for Kellermayr, one which ultimately led to her shuttering her practice in late June. It was the first of hundreds of threatening messages she received because of her public comments about the coronavirus pandemic — threats she said the police largely downplayed, leaving her without the support she needed.

“This is not going to end soon,” Kellermayr told me in mid-July, her short, wavy brown hair pulled halfway back and glasses framing her face. “I don’t know if, in a few years, I can live a normal life without looking left and right before going out the door.” 

Sixteen days later, Kellermayr was found dead in her office. Austrian authorities deemed her death a suicide, which an autopsy confirmed days later. She was 36 years old.

Kellermayr’s death on July 29 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of support from across Austria. It also sparked outrage at the lack of help she said she had received from authorities. 

To many, her case is a wake-up call in a country that has failed to adequately address both the threat posed by coronavirus conspiracy movements and the pernicious growth of online harassment and terror. Kellermayr is far from the only medical professional who has been targeted due to their stance on coronavirus vaccines or the pandemic; still, her case is a particularly vivid example of how profoundly such threats can reshape the day-to-day lives of those who receive them.

On Monday, thousands gathered at Vienna’s Stephansplatz and in half a dozen other cities to light candles in her honor. The bells of St. Stephen’s Cathedral tolled as people held up tea lights and commemorative candles and smartphone flashlights, and sang hymns. One raised a sign that read, “More Protection for Women on the Internet and in Real Life!”

People hold up lit candles and phones at a memorial in Stephansplatz for Lisa-Maria Kellermayr. Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images.

Prominent politicians, including Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen and Health Minister Johannes Rauch, posted tributes to Kellermayr on social media; van der Bellen and his wife traveled to Seewalchen to lay flowers in front of Kellermayr’s practice.

In the days following Kellermayr’s death, locals left candles and flowers at a small makeshift memorial outside her medical practice in Seewalchen am Attersee, Austria. Photo by Emily Schultheis.

Earlier this week, police in Munich announced they were investigating an Upper Bavarian man for a threatening message he sent to Kellermayr, suggesting a “tribunal of the people” would convict and execute her. And both the police and the Austrian Medical Association have come under intense scrutiny for their handling of her case. Austria’s justice ministry announced that a new EU regulation is set to strengthen its existing online hate speech laws, helping speed up investigations into threats and make it easier to track suspects across country lines.

Asked to comment on Kellermayr’s allegations that they had largely ignored her concerns, Upper Austrian police said in a statement that they had advised Kellermayr since November and addressed her and her practice’s safety in “numerous other conversations.” “The police protection measures around the practice were drastically increased,” the statement read, adding that “all legally possible measures were exhausted.”

Just weeks after closing her practice, Kellermayr had placed a mug of black tea in front of me in what was intended to be the office break room, but had instead become her kitchen. She had been effectively sequestered in the office’s small staff quarters for months, fearing for her safety outside.

For Kellermayr, the practice in Seewalchen had been a dream come true. After working in a rehabilitation clinic in the Alpine spa town of Bad Ischl and treating coronavirus patients around the Upper Austria region, she had arranged to take over a retiring doctor’s practice just a block from the bright turquoise waters of Attersee.

The lake was more than just a beautiful backdrop: It had been a solace to her in the early days of the pandemic, when she was still living in Bad Ischl. After a tough shift treating Covid patients in the early days of the pandemic, she would sometimes take the long way home and stop along the shore of Attersee; a few minutes watching the clear blue water immediately improved her mood, she said.

A view out over the turquoise waters of Attersee, the Alpine lake on which the town of Seewalchen is located. Kellermayr considered the lake as a source of solace in difficult times. Photo by Emily Schultheis.

She had planned renovations to the office with a view to making it the kind of workplace in which she’d spend years, even decades: Covid-friendly ventilation systems in each of the exam rooms, an office overlooking the lake, and staff quarters in the back intended for a late night or occasional on-call shift.

But the death threat, emailed with the subject line “I am going to execute you,” shook her sense of security in a town where she was still new and working to establish herself. “When someone writes something like this in such detail, he’s not thinking about this for the first time in his life,” she told me. “That’s what gave me the feeling that, okay, this is serious.”

The aftermath of Kellermayr’s death offered fresh evidence of just how deeply ingrained these messages of conspiracy and hatred have become. Some users in conspiracy-minded Telegram groups celebrated Kellermayr’s demise, saying it was what she deserved for vaccinating so many people against the coronavirus; others seemingly saw it as encouragement to harass other prominent women online in similar fashion. 

“Unfortunately, Dr. Kellermayr wasn’t alone with these experiences,” said Pia Lamberty, co-director of CeMAS, a German organization that tracks online extremism and conspiracy narratives. “There are so many doctors who vaccinate people and were threatened for that, and they’re often left alone with their experiences and have to pay for security measures on their own.”

A female political scientist based in Vienna, who has also been targeted online because of her work on right-wing rhetoric, received a message telling her to “do a Kellermayr” and kill herself too. And a German doctor announced she had deleted her Twitter account this week, saying she had been deeply shaken by Kellermayr’s death and was no longer willing to deal with the “life-threatening fear” of speaking out about the pandemic on social media.

The case has impacted Kellermayr’s colleagues in Seewalchen, too. A fellow doctor in town recalled their professional interactions with shared patients as friendly and well-handled, and said more should be done to protect medical professionals, especially women, who face such threats. But she spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear she could be targeted next. “A year ago it would have been different,” she told me.

Kellermayr grew up in Wels, a city of 62,000 about a 40-minute drive from Seewalchen. She trained as a paramedic and went on to study medicine in Graz and Vienna before landing her job at the rehabilitation clinic in Bad Ischl. She had never intended to become a doctor — growing up, she couldn’t stand the sight of blood — but eventually came to see it as her calling.

When the region was looking for volunteers to make house visits to Covid patients in early 2020, Kellermayr immediately signed up: She felt that young doctors like her, without families at home to put at risk, should be on the front lines of the pandemic. 

“I’m quite young, I’m single, I don’t have children or any other people I need to take care of,” she said. “That’s why I volunteered from the very beginning.”

Her experience treating Covid patients gave her an expertise many doctors didn’t yet have at the time. When she noticed a certain asthma medication reduced the need for hospitalization in her Covid patients with lung issues — a treatment later confirmed by various studies — she found herself being described as an expert by Austrian media, appearing on various coronavirus-related panels and being interviewed regularly. 

Kellermayr had never sought out the media spotlight. Before the pandemic, her Twitter account was largely filled with tributes to the comedy duo Joko & Klaas, who hosted her favorite television series. She took time off to attend a taping of their show, gleefully posting photos of her tickets. (Joko & Klaas dedicated their show to her one night earlier this week.) 

The newfound attention came with downsides — people commented about her weight and appearance — but at first it felt “completely harmless” and the normal consequence of being a woman online, she told me. None of it derailed her work or kept her from pursuing her ambition to own her own practice. And when a doctor in Seewalchen announced he was retiring and was looking for someone to take on the care of his several thousand existing patients, Kellermayr jumped at the opportunity.

But by November, just as Kellermayr was readying herself to run her practice on her own, the mood in Austria had become mutinous. Government officials announced a new lockdown to combat rising infections, and Austria became the first Western democracy to mandate vaccines for adults (a law the country has since scrapped). Across the country, the nearly-weekly coronavirus protests grew bigger and more radical, often drawing tens of thousands of people in Vienna. The situation was particularly tense in Upper Austria: Earlier that fall, a new anti-vaccine political party, “People Freedom Fundamental Rights” (MFG), had won seats in the Upper Austrian state parliament with 6.2% of the vote.

Kellermayr saw video footage of a demonstration outside a medical clinic in her hometown of Wels: Protesters had blocked the clinic’s main exit, keeping ambulances and others from getting in or out. Incensed, she tweeted about the incident — only to have the Upper Austrian Police refute her post directly, calling it a “false report.” (There was a second entrance that still allowed ambulances in and out, they said).

A screenshot of the exchange made the rounds on Telegram, which is when the more serious threats began. Kellermayr reported the first especially gruesome one to the police, who she said were helpful. They took down details and came by to check on her and the practice. But after a week passed with no real-life visit from the threat’s author, police told her they didn’t believe it was necessary to investigate further.

For Kellermayr, though, her faith in her safety and security had been broken. How could she be sure that she and her staff were in no danger when the anonymous threats continued arriving in her inbox? She reached out to politicians from all the major parties, asking for police protection or funds to help cover the cost — several thousand euros per month — of the private security officer she had engaged. In each conversation, she was told the same thing: Her situation was terrible and they wished they could help, but there was no legal structure to help her. 

Kellermayr stopped going home to her apartment in Wels when she saw bumper stickers on cars out front that alluded to a deep international coronavirus conspiracy. She had also heard her downstairs neighbors talk approvingly about conspiracy narratives on their balcony one evening. It underscored for her the insidious nature of anonymous online threats. She had no way of knowing whether those openly wishing for her death or plotting to cause her harm came from distant towns and cities or were her neighbors, or a patient, or someone she walked by every day on the street.

Eventually, the pressure of keeping up the practice became untenable. Kellermayr’s mental health and that of her staff suffered in the months that followed, and after investing $102,000 into safety renovations and a security guard, Kellermayr could no longer justify the costs of staying open. 

“Basically, it’s about my whole existence on every level — which is at stake because I’ve tried to help and do the right thing in this pandemic,” she told me. 

What’s more, she had received another message from the same person who threatened her in November, making it clear to her that the end of many coronavirus restrictions wouldn’t mean an end to the threats. “​​I hope you don’t believe you can still get out of this, do you?” the message read. “That corona is over and everything is forgotten again? Not for me, oh no — I have no problem waiting longer before I strike.” 

Not long after, Kellermayr announced via Twitter that the practice would close, criticizing the authorities for their lack of action.

In response, a spokesman for the Upper Austrian police said Kellermayr was trying to “push herself into the public eye to promote her own advancement” and suggested she go see a psychologist. The head of the Upper Austrian Medical Association said he was open to the possibility of one-time payments to help doctors like Kellermayr, but seemed to suggest her outspokenness was to blame. “Sometimes it’s better to withdraw” versus continue posting on social media, he said.

To Kellermayr, there was a cruel irony in their statements. “If I’m not quiet, if I don’t keep my mouth shut, it’s all my fault — it’s too provocative to speak my mind,” she told me. “But when these anti-vaxxers go on the streets to speak their mind, they’re secured by hundreds of policemen.” It’s as if her concerns were less valid than those of the people who had been terrorizing her, she said.

Ultimately, it was not the police but a German hacker who gave Kellermayr some of the answers she had been craving. With relatively little effort, the “hacktivist,” Nella Al-Lami, found the man who wrote the first, most graphic threats in November: A neo-Nazi in the Berlin area, a man known to German authorities and who had access to weapons. (At the time of publication, no action had yet been taken against the man.)

By the time Kellmayr and I met in mid-July, life had settled into a previously unimaginable pattern. She was effectively under self-imposed house arrest. The morning she greeted me at her practice, the space was empty save for the two of us and Fraulein, the puppy she had adopted for security and companionship, who nipped at the hem of my dress and chewed on a copy of the local newspaper as we spoke.

No patients filled the two waiting rooms, one for infectious patients and one for noninfectious patients; no children played in the jungle-themed kids’ room with stools shaped like animals and a brightly-colored rug; no nurses busied themselves in the small lab or spoke with patients at the front desk. Mail and magazines were stacked in a pile on the break room’s table. 

But there were some glimmers of hope. Kellermayr felt she had recently found a receptive contact within Austria’s interior ministry, the head of the country’s state protection and domestic intelligence service, who checked in on her regularly. When we spoke, she said she believed that the practice might still open again later this summer.

Attersee lake, even if she could only see it from afar, still gave her some solace. It was the reason she had wanted to take over this practice in the first place. These days, though, it was also a reminder of her isolation, her withdrawal from social life. “You see all these people walking by, eating ice cream and having a good time,” she said, gazing out over the sun-dappled lake. “And up here it’s like a different world: For all these months, it’s felt like they’re living in a different reality than I am.”

At the end of our two-hour conversation, she gave me a warm smile as I left the 2500-square foot office that had become her entire world. She had spent the previous half a year locked in a cycle of fear and uncertainty, but managed to recount her story with clarity and conviction, even flashes of irony and humor. She was determined to reopen her practice and was, at the time, cautiously optimistic she could find a way to do it.

Four days after Kellermayr’s death, on a sunny August day, Seewalchen looked much as it had a few weeks earlier. There was little overt evidence that the town had just lost one of its few doctors in such horrific fashion, apart from the small makeshift memorial of candles and flowers in front of her practice. 

People around town seemed leery of or uninterested in discussing the situation. When I stopped by the city hall and asked if the mayor had a moment to speak with me, he appeared almost immediately — only to tell me he had no further comment on the situation, and to see the remarks he had made to Austrian media. “We are shocked by how far hate online can go,” he told local news. “We are losing an important member of our community, a doctor to whom many entrusted their health.”

Others agreed the case was “shocking” and “tragic,” but said they had not met Kellermayr personally and knew of the situation only from media reports. “It’s horrible that it came to this point,” said one woman, Karin, during her shift in a traditional clothing store in town. “She was so young; she had so much of her life ahead of her.” 

The conversations, polite, bland and noncommittal, appeared to emphasize the extent to which Kellermayr, as a relative newcomer to a close-knit town and someone without a family of her own, lacked a support system to help her cope with the harassment. That fact made it all the more difficult that she felt unheard by authorities.

When police in Austria believe a death to be a suicide, they say there was no evidence of “Fremdverschulden,” or third-party responsibility. As the first reports of Kellermayr’s suicide emerged on Friday morning, that phrase was repeated in countless news articles. 

It may be true in Kellermayr’s case that no one else was literally, directly involved in her death. But her recounting of how things unfolded, and the national discussion it has sparked, illustrate how the question of responsibility is not so easily resolved. 

Kellermayr’s fears and concerns went, time after time, unaddressed by authorities at all levels of Austrian government and law enforcement. And as a result, her case raises fundamental questions about what responsibility the state has to its citizens in times of unprecedented online hatred and abuse. “You get the feeling you need to protect yourself, because nobody’s going to help you,” she told me last month. 

“Everybody up to the chancellor knew about this case before I went public. Everybody said it’s horrifying and I should get help. But nobody helped me.”

If you are having thoughts about suicide, or know someone who might be having such thoughts, please seek professional counselling. Know that resources and help are out there. These websites contain information on suicide prevention helplines around the world: https://findahelpline.com/; https://blog.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines/

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