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Humor and healing: Amid medical uncertainty, lighter moments are more than welcome

Sometimes, even in a hospital, humor is where you find it — if you’re looking.

“Oops” is not what a patient expects from a hospital nurse fixing to administer a pain-relieving treatment.

In my case she simply had squeezed an extra gob of ointment from a slippery tube. No harm, no foul. Just a tension-relieving chuckle.

Dan Wascoe

Three decades ago this year, writer and editor Norman Cousins wrote of his belief that his own self-prescriptive medicine plus a positive attitude and belly laughs courtesy of  Marx Brothers films helped him beat doctors’ predictions of an early demise from a rare arthritis-related ailment called ankylosing spondylitis.

During most of my 69 years, I had little reason or opportunity to even think about his thesis. That changed this summer. I spent a couple weeks in two hospitals with a relatively rare condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Rogue antibodies began chewing the lining of nerves that linked my brain with my muscles. The condition can incapacitate its victims for months, even years. I also was told, pointedly, that it can kill.

For a few days after onset, my legs and feet didn’t work and my piano-playing hands were nearly limp. The future looked uncertain.

But thanks to an apparently mild case, swift treatment and effective rehab, my prospects rapidly brightened. And that made me more receptive to several light episodes in otherwise anxious circumstances. Simply retelling them helped offset strong back pain, restless sleep and taxing rehab sessions.

Humor may or may not have accelerated my checkout from the hospital fewer than two weeks after I entered. But it didn’t hurt.

  • In the clinic where I first sought help, the doc quickly ran through a checklist of symptoms to attempt a diagnosis. He asked whether I knew the date and the president, then recited three words (apple, table, penny) that he wanted me to remember later. I memorized them, but as the minutes ticked by, the good doc didn’t ask. So I repeated them on my own.  “Smart aleck,” he said.
  • Hours after admission to the hospital, a rather dour physician realistically described the facts of my condition, including the fatality rate. He got ticked off by noisy drilling in the adjacent room. The next day he returned holding a poster he’d taken from a hospital stairwell. Its message cautioned against bothersome noise in a healing environment.  He slapped it on the wall of my room.
  • For a couple of nights I was hooked to a cumbersome heart monitor. Five wires were connected to snap-like patches on my chest and sides. When I turned over at night, I sometimes dislodged one of the leads. Then I’d fumble in the dark with the loose wire, trying to reconnect it. On one such groggy occasion I realized I’d failed because I’d been trying to snap it to my left nipple.
  • During rehab in several large rooms containing a double bed, kitchen, elevated mats, parallel bars and other gear, my lively young therapist put me through rigorous exercises before pointing across the room to a more utilitarian apparatus.

     “That’s the best offer I’ve had today,” I smirked with grandfatherly charm. To my relief, she    laughed.

    Minutes later, she advised that we were going “to the bar around the corner.”

    That, I replied, was the day’s second best offer. We became good buddies.
  • To rebuild my manual dexterity, a therapist had me play a game called “Rush Hour.” It calls for moving little plastic vehicles around a small grid to allow a small red car to escape unimpeded. After several small successes, I got stumped by one particular layout.

     “Let me give you a hint,” she said and began to move the little vehicles to clear a path. In a few moments she got stuck too.

    “That one gives everybody trouble,” she rationalized. We enjoyed a good laugh, and I felt better.

Sometimes, even in a hospital, humor is where you find it — if you’re looking.

Thank you, Mr. Cousins.

Dan Wascoe retired in 2007 after 40 years as a reporter and columnist for the Star Tribune. He currently is piano accompanist for vocalist Baibi Vegners in Nuance/a duo and is a volunteer bell player at Minneapolis City Hall.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/22/2014 - 04:05 pm.


    Poise, grace, and humor can get you through a lot of tight spots.

    A couple of years ago I went in for the wonderful colonoscopy test and my girlfriend came along to make sure I got home OK. While in the waiting room with the other spouses she told them that we were on our third date, much to their horror. We hadn’t been dating a long time, but it wasn’t quite that short.

    Later on in the recovery room I was still pretty groggy as I told her I love her, which elicited “yeah, he says that to all the girls.”

    Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I’m not sure it will make it past the sensors, so you may only get part of the joke.

    An oncology nurse has been having a rough week at work and has been putting in a lit of hours, twelve and sixteen hour days. Exhausted, she finally gets off work and heads to the bank to deposit a check before heading home. She gives the teller her check and deposit slip and the teller says “ma’am, you didn’t endorse the back of the check.”

    So the nurse digs her pen out of her purse, turns the check over, and starts to sign it. The teller says “ma’am, that’s not a pen, that’s a rectal thermometer!” The nurse looked at it and said “crap! Some asshole has my pen!’

  2. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 08/23/2014 - 04:17 pm.

    Thanks for the laugh

    Todd, Thanks for the laugh. It is nice to see some humor instead of the usual doom and gloom.

  3. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 08/25/2014 - 03:31 pm.

    Best wishes, Dan

    It’s good to see your byline again, Dan!

    I’m sorry your were afflicted with what you’ll understand my calling University President’s Disease. I hope you’ll recover fully and be back — if you’re not already — to your delightful entertaining with both piano and puns.

    Was Cousins correct? Who knows — but good humor certainly can’t hurt and when you have it, the medical staff likes you lots better than it does the complainers and grumps.

  4. Submitted by Allen Klein on 09/01/2014 - 05:58 pm.

    The Healing Power of Humor

    Thanks so much for writing this Dan.

    The therapeutic value of humor is what I’ve been talking and writing about for over 25 years ever since my first book came out…The Healing Power of Humor.

    More info on humor at

    Allen Klein, MA, CSp

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