He’s an eye doctor, cancer survivor and comedian – with millions of followers04/16/2023
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If you don’t know who Dr Glaucomflecken is, you’re probably going to be confused as to why 900 people attended a talk by the American eye doctor in Adelaide earlier this month. If you do know who he is, you might be wondering why the crowd wasn’t at least twice the size.
Dr Glaucomflecken is the pseudonym of Dr Will Flanary, an ophthalmologist who works in Portland, Oregon. In between performing surgery and seeing patients, however, he makes videos. Lots of videos.
Dr Will Flanary speaks at an event by the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases in Adelaide in April 2023.Credit: Andrew Beveridge
In them, Flanary takes the world of medicine and applies a comedic warped lens, poking fun at himself and at the tropes of other specialties, while also laying bare the realities of working in medicine. He plays almost every role himself, with the occasional cameo from his wife Kristin.
“She’s a huge supporter of me, spending weekends and nights wearing these funny costumes and doing these strange things and recording around the house,” says Flanary. “I’m very lucky.”
A bike helmet and reflective sunglasses transform him into an exercise-loving emergency doctor. A maniacal sneer, a tie and oversize metal glasses mean he’s slipping into the role of neurologist. A unicorn headband and stickers? Paediatrics.
In one video titled Family Medicine Goes to Therapy, his dishevelled character lists the multitude of tasks he’s completed that day – from delivering a baby to seeing 40 patients – before telling the psychiatrist that he’s going home for some family time. The psychiatrist is thrilled until the doctor clarifies that family time is just a nickname for paperwork, revealing the bit is a sharp indictment on overwork in the industry.
“I call the charts I have to complete at home my children,” the doctor says. “Tonight I have 25 children.”
Every time Flanary posts a video there are a flurry of comments by medical professionals. They talk about how much they feel seen, how accurate the core of the skit really is, and they share their own anecdotes. The world of Glaucomflecken is first and foremost funny – it’s not until after you’re already laughing that you take in the undercurrent of social commentary.
Flanary, who is now 37, was always interested in comedy and performed stand-up until there wasn’t room for it in his life.
Dr Will Flanary uses humour to take aim at bigger issues in the medical industry.Credit: Bridgetown Pictures
“I just got busy in med school,” he explains. In that time he also got married and had a child – driving to late-night open mics wasn’t on the cards. Then he got sick.
“I just felt the urge to make jokes about my experience … just as a way of dealing with the stress and the psychological toll of being a young adult with cancer,” he explains. “It helped.”
He started posting jokes online, and over the years his audience has grown – at present he has 3.7 million followers across TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
While his videos are funny, what makes Flanary so popular is what lies at the core of his comedy – his willingness to be vulnerable, and the way that real life trickles into his jokes and sketches. When the pandemic first hit, he made clips about missing going to work and seeing patients face-to-face. As things progressed, lighthearted videos – including one showing an unlikely team of specialist doctors descending on an emergency room – offered insight into the overwork and staff shortages happening as a result of COVID-19.
After surviving testicular cancer twice, in May 2020 he had a cardiac arrest. “It was not related to the cancer,” he says. It happened while he was sleeping, and he was kept alive by his wife performing CPR until an ambulance arrived.
He didn’t have any qualms about sharing this with his followers. “I think it’s actually helpful to see physicians talk about a lot of these challenging topics, and [to] see a doctor being vulnerable on social media. It just kind of humanises doctors a little bit – and I think we do need a lot of that these days,” he says. “It’s good for the public to see us as real human beings with these very real things going on in our lives; that we’re not just machines that have one job and that’s all we ever do or think about.”
In the weeks and months that followed his cardiac arrest, he shared his gratitude towards his family and the healthcare workers who helped him, as well as his struggles with the labyrinthine and deeply flawed medical insurance system. His joy and rage ran through his videos and posts, first as a way of venting before growing into a way to advocate and raise awareness.
“I don’t have a lot of solutions, honestly. But just getting people to recognise the problem and the greed in our system I think is helpful, and also to have an outlet for people to talk about it.”
Dr Will Flanary balanced humour and heavy topics at the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases conference.Credit: Andrew Beveridge
His experience on both sides of the medical system is what brought him to Australia to present a talk as part of the 2023 Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (ASID).
His presentation was an extension of who he is online – vulnerable, humorous and candid as he spoke about surviving cancer and his cardiac arrest, and about using comedy as a coping mechanism. “Despite how serious that sounds, he was extremely funny,” said attendee Dr Susanne Nicholson.
Before and after the conference, he made the most of his time in Australia – trying Vegemite, attending AFL matches, learning about Australian politics, and figuring out very quickly that drop bears aren’t real.
“Fortunately, I’ve only encountered the cute animals that don’t try to kill you,” he says with a laugh.
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