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Humor helps, but it’s not easy

Times Staff Writer

ALISON CRANE was back.

So with countless hugs, and a few quips, the members of the group dedicated to “healthy humor” celebrated the return of the nurse who founded their organization in the spare bedroom of her Chicago-area townhouse and during its first years did everything, editing its newsletter, organizing its conferences and giving the speeches. Now the Assn. of Applied and Therapeutic Humor was 20 years old and they celebrated that too in their convention here on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“I’m its mommy,” Crane explained at an early session for newcomers to the group, a mix of nurses, physicians, psychologists, public speakers, clergy and “caring clowns,” some of those wandering about in red and blue rubber noses. “Then I went into hiding for about 17 years.”

And that would be one through-line of their weekend, the discovery of what had happened to their founder during those “lost years” or “dark years,” as she alternately called them, and why she’d say, “I couldn’t be around an organization that’s so positive and optimistic.”

It was an ironic truth that many of the group’s members also know too well -- that you can devote your career to caring for others in hospitals and nursing homes and hospices and preach to them about the benefits of laughter and mirth and yet sometimes, when illness and depression enter your own life, there’s no way to laugh them off.

“Sometimes what’s appropriate is to cry through your grief,” Crane said, and during the next three days, other professional healers would speak too of their own brushes with death and despair and their personal attempts to find solace in the lighter side of the bleakest moments.

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The modern “therapeutic humor” movement got its start in the 1970s when magazine editor Norman Cousins wrote a book crediting doses of Marx Brothers movies -- along with a new diet and vitamin C -- with helping him come back from a potentially fatal illness.

“Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” helped spawn the use of clowns and “humor carts” in hospitals, studies attempting to document the physiological benefits of belly laughs and the formation of several national organizations, including the one that met here Feb. 16 to 18. By the end of his life, Cousins worried that some people were taking his idea too far, attributing too much power to laughter, as if “ha-ha” might help cure all problems.

But you heard few such claims at the convention.

Indeed, at the Friday morning orientation for first-timers, Steven Sultanoff, an Irvine clinical psychologist and former president of the group, cautioned that they would “learn some of the truth and fiction” in the field, and among the latter, he said, are claims that humor prompts the body to secrete more endorphins and that children laugh 400 times a day while adults enjoy that release a pitiful 15 times.

Though there were poster boards summarizing various studies, the claims here were far more modest -- merely that humor might help in stress relief, or in communicating with patients or, most essentially, in coping with disease or other life crises, “just to improve the will to live,” said the association’s new president, Lenny Dave, a Cincinnati-based humorist who lived through a heart attack a couple of years ago, at 48. He recalled being taken to the operating room, where a doctor in “a welder’s mask” was going to perform an angioplasty. “I said, ‘Doc, have you ever done one of these before?’ ”

“He said, ‘I tried one yesterday on the dog.’ ”

Telling the tale, Dave shook his head at his missed opportunity. “I forgot to ask, ‘How’s the dog?’ ”

*

Alison Crane has a picture of herself at age 3, opening a toy nurse’s kit at Christmas. As a young girl, she became addicted to the books about Cherry Ames, student nurse. At 18 she was hired as an aide at a nursing home and “I put on that white uniform and fell head over heels in love.”

But when she became a nurse, in a cardiac unit in Chicago, she realized that in a hospital, going in and out of rooms, you have fleeting seconds to connect with a patient. “I was looking for shortcuts,” she said.

She recalled one 84-year-old woman who was reluctant to ask for any help, even to go to the bathroom. But one time Crane was able to guide the woman there. They started doing a little dance together and singing “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

After that, she’d ask the woman, “Do you need to shuffle off to Buffalo?”

With other patients, she would share stories about how her daughter had said, “Mommy, I want to be one of two things when I grow up -- either a garbage man or a dolphin.” Or with a man who liked to wear a baseball cap, she’d have it perched atop the IV pole when he came out of surgery, then call the pole “George.”

She began attending “Healing Power of Laughter” conferences that were a traveling road show in the mid-'80s. Although there already was a group, Nurses for Laughter, she decided to form her own for more healthcare disciplines in 1987, paying her baby-sitter 5 cents each to put labels on its mailings. She held the first meetings nearby, in Chicago, and by 1989 drew 60-some kindred souls, including a few willing to take over when soon after, “it started to hit me ... terrible anxiety,” she said, “and I dropped out” -- until this convention, that is, when she promised to tell “the whole story.”

*

The Assn. of Applied and Therapeutic Humor now has nearly 600 members, and 200 showed up for the 20th anniversary convention at the Bayside Marriott here, with an eclectic roster of speakers and performers -- from a juggling divinity student to leaders of support groups for breast cancer survivors -- offering the attendees broad philosophies and practical tips for improving the lives of their patients, and themselves.

The kickoff speaker was a classic icebreaker for both groups, David Coleman, known as the Dating Doctor. He’s become a mainstay of the college circuit by dishing out such tidbits as: Don’t look for someone to “complete” you because “what if they leave you tomorrow, are you then less complete?” After his presentation here, he held court from behind a table, signing his books and offering more personalized advice, as to a nurse who reported that a man in the audience just said to her, “Your husband must be one lucky man.”

That was a line right from Coleman’s talk -- one supposedly that shows a man’s interest, checking the woman’s status. The problem, the nurse said, is that she told the fellow she did have a husband who thought he was so lucky “he left me a year ago.” Coleman advised her to instead tell new suitors, like that one, “Thank you, that’s very sweet. But I’m not healed yet.”

And when the nurse walked off, he said, “Because these are some of the caregivers, sometimes they need help caring for themselves.”

The next speaker was a Manhattan minister, the Rev. Susan Sparks, who mused on the lighter side of spirituality and even had an atheist joke, “I used to think I was an atheist -- until I realized I was God.”

But Sparks also mentioned her breast cancer diagnosis last spring and her dad’s recent death. Later, she recalled the first weeks after her diagnosis as a lost time for her too, amid “a million scenarios of gloom and doom,” up to the scan to determine whether the disease had spread to her liver. But what she recalled for her audience was how her mood turned around when she was told the liver scan had detected only “early signs of BLS ... Bud Light Syndrome.”

*

New president Dave mentioned to members the perception some outsiders may have of them as “these foolish people” with “this silly happy talk.” That tension was the theme of a movie made about one early member, Patch Adams, in which Robin Williams played the doctor whose medical tools included clown noses exactly like the ones distributed here by the CLLs, or certified laughter leaders.

The odd looks from the sourpusses of the world come with the territory if you list yourself as a Professional Smart Aleck or Laughter’s Chief Counsel, as one lawyer did in the convention roster, or if you identify your professional affiliation as Laughter on Wheels or the Jolly College. Or if your medical advice includes, “Start a Movement/Eat a Prune.” Or if you call yourself “Nurse Funshine,” as does Louisiana’s Cheryl Fell, who bounds into a room like Mary Poppins, singing about how sugar helps the medicine go down to start her seminar in which participants assemble goody bags with treats such as Tootsie Rolls, to remind them to roll with the punches, or marbles, “so no one can ever say you’ve totally lost yours.”

Yet like most of the speakers, Fell was careful to point out where humor can be “heartless,” as when it’s sarcastic, or when it’s inappropriate, like right after an ominous diagnosis or amid off-the-charts pain.

“You ever had a kidney stone?” asked another seminar leader, Indiana nurse Candy Waters. “Clowns don’t work. Morphine works.”

*

Friday evening, Chicago performance artist Danny “Donuts” Raudonis led a comic talk show in the Marriott ballroom he dubbed the Alison Crane Theater. His guests on stage were association members with showbiz talents, including Carla Ulbrich, a 40-year-old novelty songwriter who recorded a “Sick Humor” CD after a 2002 stroke and kidney failure brought on by lupus.

Though the usual formula has it that comedy is “pain plus time,” Ulbrich prefers it as “pain plus distance,” because you can create distance even while going through the pain. You simply “pretend you are an alien looking down on the whole thing,” she said. One of her songs is “On the Commode Again” while another, inspired by treatment-induced weight loss, is “What If Your Butt Was Gone.”

Saranne Rothberg arrived Saturday with her “Live Love Laugh” pins. She’s the founder of the Comedy Cures Foundation. Her story: “I was just a stay-at-home mom who threw a chemo comedy party in 1999 when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer while going through a divorce. Me and my daughter had a goal -- 100 laughs a day. I went home that night and vomited my guts out and wrote down Comedy Cures.”

In the hospital, she would see someone else pushing a chemo pole and ask if he or she wanted a gift, “the gift of comedy.” When that got a grumble back that this wasn’t the time, or place, she’d say, “Did you hear about the two satellite dishes that got married? The ceremony was terrible, but the reception was terrific.”

Rothberg said her target patient would often retort, “That’s horrible, let me tell you a better one” and off they’d go with the “tumor humor.”

Here she got a welcome hug from Eileen Wallach, a Tennessee-based “caring clown” in full gear -- purple wig, huge shoes and all. A dozen or more of them were going to the Panama City Mall to spread the spirit to the locals, carrying clown noses, balloons and smiley-face stickers to put on the cheeks of toddlers, teens and adult shoppers.

The clown brigade had chipped in $5 each to pay for the supplies, but at the mall Danny Donuts decided on a better use of the money -- they’d buy $80 in cookies from a table of Girl Scouts and hand those out too. To chants of “Ho, Ho-Ha, Ha Ha,” they gave the girls their biggest sale of the day, then staged a mock tug-of-war in the mall, inviting passersby to pull with them on an imaginary rope.

Among these merrymakers from the conference was Marie Bethke, a retired nurse from New Jersey who became a certified laughter leader after losing her son in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bethke works in nursing homes and with Alzheimer’s patients and has gone through cancer care herself, as has her husband, Brud, who missed last year’s convention because of his chemo treatments.

“You know, I think half the people at these things are cancer survivors,” Brud said on the trip back to the hotel, where it soon would be time for Alison Crane to tell them about her last 17 years.

They gave her a plaque first, and a standing ovation, at the Saturday night banquet. Then she said, “Would you like to hear what happened to me?”

Some of it was classic post-traumatic stress, as she saw it, in her case from a close call while giving birth to her daughter, when they gave her a drug and “I coded.” After that came her brother’s AIDS. “The day I was supposed to get my master’s” -- in psychiatric nursing -- “I was at my brother’s funeral.” She spoke of her marriage that “blew apart” and the death of her mother, who had cancer “without my being told.” She spoke of the illness of her second child, her son, and her own hysterectomy and pneumonia, and the thefts of her jewelry. And her panic attacks. Those were “not a fun thing,” Crane said.

She no doubt sensed that the list was getting too long, but she had promised “the whole story,” so on she went, telling about her bout with West Nile virus and even a date she had when she became single, with some guy whose first wife had killed herself after he criticized her.

“That’s why I haven’t been here for 17 years,” Crane said when it had all come out.

The most interesting detail, though, was how she’d rescued herself from that emotional morass -- by joining the Army. The Army Reserves, actually, working with soldiers back from Iraq. Touchy-feely stuff would never work with these vets, who tested her time and again and groaned when they heard she was a psychiatric nurse. Yet humor, she said, once again bridged the gap. A lot of it is of the morbid, graveyard variety, not surprisingly. But sometimes the equivalent of a knock-knock joke did the trick.

“One said, ‘This guy is so paranoid he thinks I’m stealing his pen.’

“So I said, ‘Are you?’

“ ‘Of course.’ ”

Capt. Alison Crane found a new cause in these soldiers, who gave her some perspective on her last 17 years. “We’re all on this big ball of dirt together,” she said, and when the current leaders of the Assn. for Applied and Therapeutic Humor insisted that she be part of the 20th anniversary celebration, for the first time in a long time, she said, “Yes.”

Sunday, it ended with Paul Huschilt, a Canadian humorist, offering a “comic summary” of the weekend. He parodied all the speakers, and Crane could not get a free ride, either. After praising her courage, he said: “The point was she had been through hell. It was a profound story and everybody else at the conference had the same story. But they didn’t tell it that night,” he deadpanned, thus sending the humor therapists home on the necessary note, the transformation of pain into laughter.

paul.lieberman@latimes.com


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