Twitter activist and educator Kristin Flanary advocates for caretakers and holistic health care

Charlotte Flanary at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival
Charlotte Flanary, Kristin Flanary’s daughter, tosses fallen petals at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon. (Photo by Kristin Flanary)

By Boutayna Chokrane
Medill Reports

Kristin Flanary’s husband almost died on her three times. In his 20s, Will Flanary battled testicular cancer — twice. Then, in May 2020, he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. Kristin Flanary called 911. She performed CPR as her unconscious husband turned blue, then purple and finally gray. After paramedics arrived nearly 10 minutes later, they rushed him to the hospital.

Because of the pandemic, the hospital staff asked her to leave when she arrived. Then and now, she sees herself as a forgotten patient and co-survivor, not just as a caretaker.

Turning her trauma into strength, Kristin Flanary, now 37, advocates for widespread CPR training, insurance reform and a reexamination of the way healthcare systems interact with patients’ families. She lives in Portland with her now healthy husband and two daughters, Charlotte, 9, and Claire, 6. When she’s not on #MedTwitter, she works remotely as the communications manager at the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I feel like everybody asks you about your husband. I want to know a little bit more about you.

Kristin Flanary's Self-Portrait
Kristin Flanary captures this self-portrait in 2018, right before the midterm elections and just after the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. (Photo by Kristin Flanary)

[laughs] Thank you.

You’re a work-from-home mom, a stay-at-home mom and a work-outside-the-home mom. How do you take care of yourself?

It’s tricky. You have to be assertive with your family about what your needs are. As the mom, I think it tends to fall to us to always be taking care of everybody else. Sometimes you just have to say, “It’s not me today.” I will sometimes announce that I’m having a mommy night. Depending on what people’s manners have been, I might be going on strike that night.

What does a mommy night entail?

Usually a glass of wine, a weighted blanket and a book or some writing.

You’re also a photographer. What motivates you?

Photography is my creative outlet. I always liked pictures as a kid. I was making little collages and photo albums. Once I moved to New England for grad school, I wanted to take pictures of everything. When my first child was born, I had 5,000 pictures of her by her first birthday. I started trying to hone my skills. My photography focuses a lot on storytelling. I want you to get sort of sucked into an image. I don’t like an overly filtered look.

You talk a lot about what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who’s in the medical field. What’s your advice for people in a similar situation?

It’s easiest if you have your own thing going on. If your whole life is wrapped up in another person, I think that’s a recipe for disaster no matter what field you’re both in.

Charlotte and Claire Flanary at Oregon’s Hood River Fruit Loop
Charlotte Flanary holds her sister, Claire Flanary, up to see the flavors at an ice cream stop along Oregon’s Hood River Fruit Loop. (Photo by Kristin Flanary)

How do you feel powerful when you feel powerless?

I like to organize like I have some control over my environment. But also, advocacy is my therapy. I may not have been able to change what happened to me, but maybe I can help make it better for people that come after me.

How does being married to a doctor affect how you advocate for yourself?

I try to be very careful with my language. I know the people that he works with. They’re not faceless doctors to me. They’re not gods. They’re humans, and they want to help, so I’m not wanting to vilify any role or person. We are all multifaceted people. This system (is) focused on medical needs, and it doesn’t always consider how these things might be affecting the person’s humanity. We need more work in that area to make sure that people that come into the hospital don’t leave broken.

On a lighter note, do you ever think about starting a TikTok?

[laughs] No, I think my husband’s got that covered. I do wish that I could be a little bit more active on social media. I’ve thought about maybe Instagram. I’ve thought about maybe someday writing a memoir about these kinds of things.

Will and Claire Flanary in the Wallowa Mountains
Will Flanary and his daughter, Claire Flanary, at the summit of Mount Howard in the Wallowa Mountains. (Photo by Kristin Flanary)

What else should I have asked you?

There are a lot of misconceptions about what it is to be a “doctor’s wife.” I think a lot of people think that it’s glamorous, and it’s not.

Can you tell me more?

In residency, my (husband’s) co-residents would make comments to him about how his wife doesn’t make him his lunch. It feels patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic. When my husband was in residency, they had to do an away rotation. That fully assumed that someone is at home to take care of the home stuff while this person moves to a different city for a few months. It was extremely disruptive to our lives because I had a full-time job. I’m not just sitting at home. We’re a team and half my team got called away. We’re paying for daycare because we’re both at work. It was almost my whole paycheck.

It seems like there’s an assumption that your first responsibility is to care for your husband and everything else comes second to that.

Yes, I would say that’s very accurate — and I don’t love it. It’s ironic because my grandfather was a doctor. (My grandparents) were from another era where the man goes off to work, and the woman cooks and cleans and raises the kids and rubs his feet when he gets home. I loved my grandparents, but it just never sat well with me and that’s not how my parents raised us. I don’t just want to be somebody’s wife. I’m more than that. I am a whole person.

Boutayna Chokrane is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @boutaynaaa.