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NAEMSP 2023 Quick Take: ‘Wife or Death’

Lessons from a bystander responder and co-survivor of SCA, Kristin Flanary – Lady Glaucomflecken, lifesaver, CPR champion and keynote extraordinaire


Kristin Flanary gave the keynote address at the NAEMSP 2023 annual meeting.

Photo/Rob Lawrence

TAMPA, Fla. — There were many reasons to celebrate and remember this year’s NAEMSP 2023 annual meeting. Many I spoke with enthused about the “buzz” of the event, the chance to be back in one place, but, most of all, the talk of Tampa was about keynote speaker, Lady Glaucomflecken herself - Kristin Flanary.

Many know Kristin in her comic guise as lay CPR responder and wife of the social media sensation, Dr. Will Flanary, AKA Dr. Glaucomflecken. Their collective backstory includes Will going into cardiac arrest and Kristin calling 911 while pushing hard and fast with the help of a hero in a headset – delivering cool, calm and encouraging instruction and guidance. This CPR was followed minutes later by a crew that continued the chain of survival and amazing care. The rest is Patagonia-laden, character-filled, TikTok fodder!

Flanary’s “Wife and Death” keynote moved the room into two standing ovations, the first after the audience listened intently to her actual 911 call tape and heard the range of emotion and feelings that occur in such life-and-death situations.

The dispatcher, who we now know as Lisa, provided perfect CPR instruction to Kristin, who in turn delivered the live-saving compressions, while asking that the arriving crew did not wake up the children, as, quite rightly, they did not need to witness the trauma unfold.

According to Flanary, the arriving first responders, under Lt. Gregg, delivered compassion, care and attention, which, given the recent national news stories of poor EMS bedside manner and negligent response, filled the room at NAEMSP with a breath of fresh air that we also, all perhaps needed.

Flanary’s message was one of praise for the first response system but, reflecting on her experience at the hospital during COVID restrictions, also carried the important message that co-survivors – significant others or loved ones who bought patients time through CPR while waiting for professional help to take over – have wants and needs in the aftermath of such a traumatic event as well.

Key takeaways about how to help loved ones and co-survivors include:

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Once the keynote ended, applause ceased and eyes dried, I caught up with Flanary and asked a few questions.

Rob Lawrence: In those opening moments of making a 911 call, there are three people in the room – you, your husband and the call taker – tell me about that feeling?

Kristin Flanary: It’s a very strange phenomena. The call taker is the only person in the room with you, the only person that goes through that experience with you and it does create this sense of connection and bond with that person. They are the only person who knows exactly what it felt like to be there that day. Even the person you are doing CPR on, even if it’s a loved one – they don’t understand exactly what it was like. So that is a really special thing, and any time you can reach out to that person afterwards and meet them, that is a really special moment and a lifelong bond.

Lawrence: They quite rightly deserve the title ‘heroes in headsets,’ and everybody should acknowledge that lifesaving begins with a phone call – would you agree with that?

Flanary: I absolutely agree; I have said from the beginning that Lisa, my call taker, is my hero, because I credit her with saving my husband’s life. I had no idea that he was having a cardiac arrest or that he needed CPR. She knew: she was the one that knew what to do to save him and instructed me in doing it. if she had not been there, he wouldn’t be here either. So she is our hero.

Lawrence: You are clearly the poster person for doing good and effective CPR, and also in staying exceptionally calm given the circumstances that you faced. What do you say other people that are quite reluctant to learn CPR?

Flanary: There is no downside, really. You can’t hurt the person because they are dead … and if they are not, and you need to stop doing it, they will be sure to let you know and they will push you off of them and will indicate in some way to let you know that no CPR is needed. Do not be afraid, if it’s going to hurt them, then it is better to be a little bit injured than dead!

Lawrence: As the significant other of someone that has experienced cardiac arrest, you made excellent points about how the first responders should communicate with loved ones, because you experienced trauma and shock at the same time – what are your words of wisdom?

Flanary: The person there (with the cardiac arrest victim) is just as much of a patient as the person who has the cardiac arrest. The person who had it did not experience it consciously – their bodies did, but their mind did not. With the person who responded, it’s the opposite. Their body didn’t experience it, but their mind did, and it is a very traumatizing thing to do and to witness. Reach out to that person with compassion and empathy or try to connect them with someone that can provide that.

Lawrence: Both you and your husband are championing CPR on social media, but talk about your work in CPR and cardiac arrest survival.

Flanary: I try to use our experience for good. Ours was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s kind of an extreme example of what can happen, what can go well and what can go poorly, so we are well suited to be able to speak to this. Also, it is just personally meaningful and helpful. Because it’s like fertilizer, it’s just a big stinking pile of crap, but if you add light, water and give it some time, then something really beautiful can grow out of it and there is a lot of healing in that.

Lawrence: You concluded your keynote session with an incredibly special message to those healthcare professionals in the room - what should they be thinking about as well?

Flanary: Just remember that before you are whatever you job is, you are a human and this other person is a human, so even if you are not sure what the right thing is to say or you haven’t been trained in that particular area, you are human and you know how to interact with other humans. Just show that humanity to the other person that you interact with and reach out to them, person-to-person.

‘They need you too’

The pinned thread on Kristin Flanary’s social media page sums it all up nicely – “That cardiac arrest did not happen in my body, but it very much happened to me too. Patients are not cases. They are people, who love and are loved by other people. Their lives often intertwined, impossible to try to extricate into separate bins of ‘patient’ and ‘not patient.’ Do not forget those other people. Some of them are co-patients, co-survivors. The medical event happened to them too. They need you, too.”

Learn more about sudden cardiac arrest

Rob Lawrence has been a leader in civilian and military EMS for over a quarter of a century. He is currently the director of strategic implementation for PRO EMS and its educational arm, Prodigy EMS, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and part-time executive director of the California Ambulance Association.

He previously served as the chief operating officer of the Richmond Ambulance Authority (Virginia), which won both state and national EMS Agency of the Year awards during his 10-year tenure. Additionally, he served as COO for Paramedics Plus in Alameda County, California.

Prior to emigrating to the U.S. in 2008, Rob served as the COO for the East of England Ambulance Service in Suffolk County, England, and as the executive director of operations and service development for the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust. Rob is a former Army officer and graduate of the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served worldwide in a 20-year military career encompassing many prehospital and evacuation leadership roles.

Rob is a board member of the Academy of International Mobile Healthcare Integration (AIMHI) as well as chair of the American Ambulance Association’s State Association Forum. He writes and podcasts for EMS1 and is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with him on Twitter.