It’s never too late to have a happy childhood

Time for a new blog… this one about how laughter is good for whatever ails you 

Patch Adams says “Show me the data that solemnity ever cured anything!” I first met Patch, Founder of the Gesundheit Institute, when he came to present at an Arts & Health symposium we ran at the University of Florida. He gave an uproarious presentation titled “Humor and Health: Rationale for a Clown’s Life.” I actually met him the day before, when he somehow found his way to my oncology clinic as I was checking on the children still receiving their chemotherapy infusions. I’d just finished fixing a little guy’s IV site when I found myself swept up into six-foot-six Patch’s arms, and the whole clinic—patients, parents, nurses—erupted in laughter as we proceeded to complete rounds together with me hoisted aloft.

Patch’s courageous and crazy convictions stayed with me. Why indeed can’t loving kindness and compassion, and a whole lot of laughter and joy, claim their central place in health care? I may not have rebelled entirely against our teaching hospital’s dress code and adopted a complete clown outfit, but I certainly pushed the envelope. We doctors were obliged to wear ties, so I acquired a holey “Swiss cheese” one, made entirely of very readily expanded elastic, and complete with a nibbling mouse hanging off its end (see picture). And I took to wearing colorful odd socks, which quickly became a trademark with the children, and carrying an assortment of squeaky toys in my pockets, along with a clown mask and wig, several red noses and a three-foot square Union Jack handkerchief . I quickly discovered that adults as well as children enjoyed an impromptu clown display whenever the moment seemed to call for it.

My three-foot-square handkerchief sometimes let me bring some healing humor to hard situations. I’d just broken the news to a teenaged patient, Jess, and his parents that he would have to receive several more rounds of chemo for his cancer—something none of them had prepared themselves for. Mom started to cry, while both Jess and his dad did their awkward best to comfort her.  After a few more moments, Mom started to dry her eyes and tried to summon a small grin. Which turned to a much larger one when I took a very long moment to gradually draw my Union Jack hankie out of my pants pocket and offer it to her.

Then a new patient gave me a powerful reminder of the healing power of humor. When I’d first met Leah, she had already received her first chemo doses, leaving her mouth and throat raw and painful—a debilitating side effect almost impossible to prevent, and barely ameliorate. That, coupled with the pain caused by the large mass in her hip—a biopsy had shown an extensive Ewing’s sarcoma in her iliac crest—had put her in a thoroughly grumpy mood towards the whole medical profession that Monday morning. And as I was to find out, Leah didn’t hesitate to make her feelings known.

As I approached her bedside to introduce myself, she reached up, grabbed my tie, and yanked it hard. I instantly regretted I wasn’t wearing my expandable rubber one.

“Give me morphine,” she croaked through cracked lips.

A quick check told me her mucositis—horrid inflammation and ulceration of the lining of her mouth and throat—was severe. I wrote for the stat dose of narcotic clearly needed to ease her pain. Twenty-four hours on, I was at her bedside once more–this time making sure I was wearing my cheese necktie—(see pic) and she presented me with a cartoon drawing of the two of us.

It captured Leah’s own very real anger, and her new doctor’s astonishment at being greeted with physical assault. The time intervening between my two visits had been long enough for my feisty patient to reassert her sense of humor, and to put her artistry to work to capture the moment of our first meeting.

Victor Borge said a smile is the closest distance between two people. Elbert Hubbard put it this way: “Don’t take life too seriously or you won’t get out alive.” So just remember that the best time to laugh is when you most feel like it—when you’re mad, sad, embarrassed, or scared—and I mean a belly laugh at least 30 seconds long. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel.

Shameless self-promotion: Quite a bit of this blog comes from my memoir, “Journeys with a Thousand Heroes”, due out from Wising Up Press in July…