By Victor S. Sierpina
As a kid, one of my favorite sections of the Reader’s Digest was “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”
I read it voraciously as each issue arrived and reread it as the Reader’s Digest was conveniently placed in our family bathroom.
I really liked the idea of good humor as a lubricant to the wheels of life. As I grew older, even as s a serious student, I found good humor in tasteful jokes, the elegance of TV comedians like Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns, Jackie Gleason and many more.
After college, I washed out of marine biology graduate school because of recurrent, intractable seasickness.
Following a couple interesting years driving a truck, I entered medical school.
There, the idea that laughter was the best medicine seemed far removed from the life of a medical student. We reverentially dissected donated cadavers, extracting all the knowledge we could from this final last gift of families and patients.
In fact, when some of our classmates propped up five cadavers around a table with poker cards and chips, they were immediately expelled.
It was disrespectful and not funny, an immature prank that offended many, including those whose families had donated bodies.
Furthermore, when faced with pain, disability and death that is the daily work of medicine, humor might often seem out of place, inappropriate and even callous.
We were trained doctors and as healers should be knowledgeable, attentive, compassionate, empathic and concerned.
Still, I couldn’t help but recall the words of Hippocrates, who encouraged physicians to be of good cheer: “Use wit in your dealings with patients because dourness is repulsive both to the healthy and the sick.”
Likewise, the book of Proverbs says: “A merry heart doeth good like medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.”
To my rescue came Patch Adams, a clown-oriented physician. He followed in the traditions of Sir Thomas Sydenham, a respected founder of the field of pathology, who said, “One clown coming into a town brings more health than 20 asses laden with medicines.”
Clowning programs are, of course, now highly popular on pediatric wards.
A New England Journal of Medicine article reported on how well-known journalist Norman Cousins cured himself of pain and a fatal connective tissue disease with laughter therapy by watching comical films and shows. So I have ever sought to bring my humorous side to the healing encounter.
Over the years, I have found that well-placed humor at the bedside and in the clinic can help both patient and physician deal with what is sometimes an unspeakably difficult situation.
This needs to be done in the context of trust, caring, respect and compassion — lest it stray into insensitivity or inappropriateness.
I have at least a half dozen books on medical humor and cartoons. Some of the jokes are cute one- or three-liners or just funny stories.
In my experience, though, the best humor is that initiated by the patient, something that fits in the context of an established physician-patient relationship. That aids in creating the social glue and personal connection people seek with their physician.
If you want some comedy for entertainment, see a show or watch a movie. If you want real-life humor that helps you in your struggle with the challenges of illness and wellness promotion, find a good doctor nurse or other health care provider who can relate to serious matters and real challenges with dignity, respect and relevance, but also with a good sense of humor and the right touch of lightness.
Well used, humor and laughter are essential for an optimal healing environment.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.