“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.
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.