It was May 11th, the day after Mother’s Day in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic. At 4:45 in the morning, Kristin Flanary awoke to the sound of her husband Will’s snoring.
“I didn’t know what agonal breathing was at the time, but that’s what he was doing. I told him I was going to call 911 and get some help. The dispatcher recognized what was needed and told me to do CPR.”
Kristin had undergone CPR training about 15 years before for an after-school job in college. “I knew how to do CPR and it’s not that hard to do. It’s not a complicated maneuver. It’s just pushing, but its physically exhausting.”
The dispatcher was Lisa Peterson. “She is really the hero in the story,” said Kristin. “I am so grateful to her. She walked me through and counted with me and helped me keep pace. And of course, in the meantime, she was also arranging all the help to arrive. I couldn’t move him off the bed. I had had a cervical disc replacement just a few months before. So, she said ‘We’re just going to give him CPR on the bed. So, we did 10 minutes of CPR and then the paramedics arrived. And because it was during COVID, they arrived in full HazMat suits.”
The Flanary’s children, 8 and 5 at the time, were in their rooms upstairs. “It was this horrible choice, right?” said Kristin. “I couldn’t leave him to answer the door. So EMS had to kick in the door.” And she didn’t want her children to answer the door. “You can never unsee what it is that I’m seeing, and I don't want to have my children see that.”
The paramedics brought Will downstairs. “I heard them deliver the first shock and heard his body slam on the floor,” she said. Then she went upstairs to check on the children, who, thankfully, were still sleeping.
Kristin called her parents, who live nearby, and Will’s parents, and then packed a hospital bag. “I just couldn't think of anything other than just the logistics.”
She was hoping and planning for the best. “At this point, I don’t think it had registered with me that it was a cardiac arrest. I don't have any medical training. I knew it was bad. But you’re in that state of shock. It’s just hard to think. And so, it didn't occur to me that that’s what it was. All I knew was it seemed like he might not survive. But just in case he did, I was packing a bag of all the things he might need in the hospital. I didn’t know if I was going to be allowed to go, because again, it was during COVID-19, so they weren’t allowing visitors except under very dire circumstances. And so, I called his work and told them that they need to reschedule his patients for today.” Will is an ophthalmologist.
One of the paramedics, Lt. Gregg, was assigned to be the family liaison and he would come back and forth between downstairs, where the resuscitation was taking place, and upstairs. “He’s the one who told me Will had gone into ventricular fibrillation and then cardiac arrest. My only question was ‘What do I tell the kids?’”
He said his parenting philosophy is to always tell the truth but be age appropriate. “So, I said, your dad got sick and he needed some equipment that we don’t have at home to help him. And so they took him to the hospital to help him. I think their main question was, ‘What’s for breakfast?’”
Kristin’s mother stayed with the kids and her father drove her to the hospital. Since it was the beginning of COVID and protocols had not been figured out, Kristin was asked to stay in a radiology waiting room, where, as it turned out, there was no cell phone coverage. “I couldn’t call anyone, text anyone, Google anything,” she said. “It was traumatic for so many families at that time,” she acknowledged. “Your loved one is in the hospital and possibly dying and you can’t be there.” She added, “That was almost as traumatizing as the cardiac arrest itself because now he is in dire straits fighting for his life and I can’t even get to see him.”
Kristin never did get to be with her husband in the hospital, and so, she ended up going home, waiting anxiously for updates from hospital staff. In time, she learned he had been cooled to mitigate brain damage. And once he had been warmed, he was able to follow commands.
“That was the first moment that I felt like things might be okay,” said Kristin. At this point, at least they were able to FaceTime. “I could see the sparkle in his eye and know he was still in there. And that’s when I felt I could breathe. And I could tell the kids ‘Your dad is going to be okay.’”
Will returned home four days later with a LifeVest. “He called it his electric bra,” she said, laughing. A few weeks later, he was fitted with a subcutaneous ICD (implantable cardio-defibrillator).
The Flanary have no family history of cardiac arrest, but after genetic testing, they learned Will has “a variant of unknown significance,” and his mother has the same variant. “We don’t know if the kids have it or if the variant even caused the cardiac arrest,” Kristin said. “And so," she said, "We are trying to learn to live with uncertainty.” To be on the safe side, they have acquired an AED for their home.
Facing health challenges is nothing new for the Flanarys. Will survived testicular cancer twice. “He used comedy to cope,” according to Kristin.
Eventually, Will created the stage name of Dr. Glaucomflecken, and has since grown an extensive social media following on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. Kristin soon joined the party as Lady Glaucomflecken and she has become an international social media star. She is a keynote speaker, author, and advocate raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest. Her blog, “The Quiet Place,” provides poignant insights into her experience as a co-survivor.
Kristin was recognized as a 2022 American Heart Association Resuscitation Science (ReSS) Champion at an annual conference in Chicago this past November. The ReSS Champion Award “Recognizes an individual who has demonstrated commitment to the field of resuscitation science, through championing research and/or clinical improvements, supporting resuscitation scholars, and serving as a passionate advocate for our field. This award is designated for an individual who is not a full-time healthcare professional but rather someone who supports our field through their work in government, industry, or public advocacy.”
-Mary Newman, SCA Foundation