Opening Ceremony: Doctor-Comedian Recounts How Humor Helped Him Through Medical Crises

Humor can brighten the darkest of times. Just ask Opening Ceremony keynote speaker William Flanary, MD, better known as Dr. Glaucomflecken on stage and social media. His first clinical rotation was at a small community hospital ICU.

William Flanary, MD - aka Dr. Glaucomflecken
William Flanary, MD – aka Dr. Glaucomflecken

“Remember, I’m going to be an ophthalmologist and I’m the only physician in the ICU when a patient comes in with respiratory problems,” Dr. Flanary recalled. “I called the attending, who said to start the ECMO protocol. I said yes, I’ll start the ECMO protocol, went to the staff room, and googled, ‘What is the ECMO protocol?’ That was my introduction to interdisciplinary medicine. I had a lot of people helping me help my patient that night.”

Dr. Flanary didn’t initially plan to go into medicine. He got hooked on comedy during high school while he grew up in suburban Houston and expected to move to the professional circuit.

“As graduation got closer, I started looking at the other comedians in the club, guys in their 30s and 40s who were still trying to break in and thought about the future,” Dr. Flanary explained. “I went the easy route and became a doctor.”

In his third year of medical school, he discovered a lump on one of his testicles.

Testicular is a “good cancer,” Dr. Flanary said. Catch it early and it is treatable.

“One orchiectomy and it’s done,” he said. “Emotionally though, it was tough. I was in the cancer waiting room with people three times my age. And when it was over, I walked a little funny. Comedy helped me cope. There are things in life you can’t control: getting sick, a pandemic, having UnitedHealth medical insurance. Humor allows you to retake control. Whatever it was that was getting away becomes yours again.”

Four years later, while he was a senior resident, he found a lump on the other testicle.

“I was one of the lucky few among us with recurrent testicular cancer,” he joked.

Then came Mother’s Day 2020, 4:50 a.m., in Portland, Ore.

“My wife woke up hearing me gasping for breath,” Dr. Flanary said. “But I wasn’t snoring, I was in cardiac arrest.”

His wife called 911; an operator talked her through 10 minutes of CPR until paramedics arrived.

“I went to bed one night and woke up in the ICU two days later and had no underwear, not knowing what had happened,” Dr. Flanary said. “My wife lived through every minute of those two days.”

“Don’t forget the impact that medical events have,” he continued. “We ask people to give chest compressions, but we don’t help the people who give them.”

M. Patricia Rivera, MD, ATSF

ATS President M. Patricia Rivera, MD, ATSF, opened the session with a recap of the Society’s accomplishments, including a 45:1 return on investment from the ATS Research Program. Grantees leveraged $24 million in ATS grants into more than $880 million in NIH funding.

The Society plans to double its early career grants over the next 20 years and has partnered with the American Lung Association on a new joint research grant program.

“The ATS has always had a special relationship with the American Lung Association. We are pleased to announce that we are joining with them to celebrate their 120th anniversary by jointly committing to the ATS & ALA Commemorative 120th Anniversary Joint Research Award, valued at $120,000,” said Dr. Rivera.

The Opening Ceremony also honored new ATS Fellows and Society awardees, including the Jo Rae Wright Award for Outstanding Service, the Public Service Award, the World Lung Health Award, and the J. Randall Curtis Humanism Award.

Don’t Miss ATS 2024 Highlights: On Demand

Don’t forget that ATS 2024 Highlights: On Demand are available to all conference registrants! On Demand will give you access to the Opening Ceremony, Plenary Session, Keynote Series, Clinical Year in Review, Adult Clinical Core Curriculum, and so much more. The topics will cover ILD, asthma, health equity, and CF, to name just a few. On Demand content will be accessible to all ATS 2024 full conference and On Demand registrants until March 2025.