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Ryan Flesher MD: Filmmaker

Why would a physician leave clinical practice and start making movies?

What am I? A doctor? A filmmaker? That question has frequently run through my mind over the last 5 years. It was planted in my brain by an Emergency Department director I had about 5 years ago that said to me upon my annual review before signing a new contract, “I’m not sure I want a wanna be filmmaker and a part time doctor working for me.” Needless to say I didn’t sign that contract.

Let’s look at the facts. I went to medical school, and even finished without getting thrown out. I passed all my board exams and I matched my first choice for an Emergency Medicine residency in Pittsburgh, that I somehow managed to survive without killing too many patients, any other doctors or myself. I became board certified in Emergency Medicine and I have been working in real live ERs for the last 9 years. So I guess that makes me a bone fide doctor. I can’t say that from the time I was three years old I wanted to be a doctor, but somewhere along the line I felt like having a profession that helped people, had reasonable job security and made a fair wage seemed like a good idea. Now I understand the concept of hindsight.

Scared and cynical, that pretty much summed up my state of mind when thinking about my medical career 5 years ago. Those same sentiments held true for my opinion on the future of the medical system in general. That was why I had to make a change.

Initially that change was to become a “part time” doctor. I felt like scaling back my hours would stave off the impending burnout and help me focus on what was important with my life. And it did help, a little, and for a short period of time. But even only working 8 shifts a month, within a few minutes into a shift I’d be right back into the same frustration and anger I felt on my last work day.

So I decided to quit. For the first time that I can remember (except during pee wee football when I realized I was more of the soccer type) I was going to quit something. But after 15 years of school and training to become a physician, I wasn’t going to walk away without at least a little bit of self examination. I had to see what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t “hack” being a practicing doctor. That’s where being a “wanna be” filmmaker comes in as I decided to examine the “what’s wrong with me question” on camera. The product is The Vanishing Oath, a documentary film that looks at the obstacles doctors and their patients face, from the inside of the healthcare machine.

So I am a doctor, I have the paperwork to prove it. As for being a filmmaker, that’s harder to define. When is one considered a “writer” or a “painter” or a “filmmaker”? Is it when you complete your first book or film, or is it when you can say you earn your living off of your art. So by the first definition, I AM A FILMMAKER. By the second definition I’M A WANNA BE.

So if ever asked again, “are you a doctor or a film maker?” I can now answer:

“If being to be a real doctor is having to suffer hours on end, affect little change in my patients lives because the system doesn’t allow it,  and destroy my own health and family to do so, then NO I’M NOT a real doctor.” “And if by exploring and learning about the realities of medical care in this country and further igniting my passion to help my colleagues and ultimately our patients then, YES I AM filmmaker”.

And proud of it.

Reader Comments (1)

What a moving story! Great to see those pursuing their passion in filmmaking! Bravo!

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