Hospitals don’t do humour. If you really want to annoy the hell out of an infection control nurse, say you are looking for a Mr Sa. When she furrows her brow and looks at you bemusedly, repeat the question as many times as it takes to elicit the right response. Eight times is my personal record – see if you can better it.
Hospital humour has always been the staple of comedians, greetings card designers and political cartoonists. Then why do we rarely find comedy in hospital?
A few years ago I worked on an acute children’s respiratory ward where I felt duty-bound to entertain the little darlings. My pockets were stuffed with all kinds of chuckle props – glasses with spring-loaded eyeballs, water pistols, bubble guns and the number one mirth-maker: the revolving, flashing bow-tie.
The kids lapped it up, as did the parents who were either suffering repetitive brain injury from watching the Toy Story trilogy or deprived of sleep, moping around their offspring like bleary-eyed grizzly bears tipped out of hibernation.
Laughter is well known for its healing properties. Even a two-minute titter releases enough feel-good chemicals (endorphins) to cheer up a gloom-fogged brain. It also lowers levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and cleans old stale air from the lungs, allowing fresh clean air to replace it. A true full-on belly laugh can also burn excess calories and leave us with a euphoric ‘afterglow’ in which we relax tense muscles.
Why then don’t we employ funny people in hospital to amuse the patients and staff – laughter therapists such as Patch Adams from the Gesundheit Institute in Washington and Dr Robert Holden who works in the Oxford-based Happiness project, funded by the NHS in 1991, and conducts laughter workshops for staff, patients and big corporations (there goes the training budget).
It makes perfect sense to keep staff happy as they usually become more enthusiastic and less prone to hide in the sluice or take an extended coffee break. I’m not advocating clowns squirting water at patients with cancer, or slipping whoopee cushions under people recuperating from bowel surgery. Humour needs to be appropriate. Perhaps a ‘mirth menu’ from which patients could choose might work.
Of course, the medical staff would have to be the butt of jokes. This has the dual benefit of tipping them from their ivory towers as well as providing an antidote to the doom-laden conversations that pervade the staff room.
Experts, especially psychologists, talk endlessly about coping strategies. My own defence against the dark side of life has always been my warped sense of humour – whether it be imagining the ward manager naked on a bouncy castle or playing a practical joke on the know-it-all registrar. Try it yourself, it may actually catch on.
Simon Daniels is mental health rehabilitation nurse, Richmond Fellowship, Stoke-on-Trent