Laughter Therapy

More than just funny

by Dina Di Maio

Have you laughed today? If you haven't, do you know what you're missing out on? The benefits of laughter are immense.

In the February 1994 issue of Omni magazine, there was a report about an immune system study at Stanford University in which catheters were inserted "into the veins of medical students, drawing blood every few minutes while showing a videotape of the comedian Gallagher." The test showed that laughter increases white-blood cell activity.

If laughter can do a lot to boost a person's health, then imagine what laughter can do for a person with a terminal illness, such as cancer.

Ruth Hamilton worked as a facilities auditor in the cancer ward of Duke University Medical Center. She noticed something lacking in patient care: happiness. Hamilton felt the need for someone to come in and bring some joy to the patients because "their soul, their spirit was not supported." She remembered a worker at a hospital in New York who used to take a cart around from room to room to cheer patients up. So Hamilton got an idea of her own and the Laugh Mobile was born.

In 1986, Hamilton had the Laugh Mobile built and founded the non-profit organization, Carolina Health and Humor Association (Carolina Ha Ha). The Laugh Mobile is a special vehicle. Inside are all kinds of tools to bring humor and laughter to the cancer patients of Duke. The props range from the familiar whoopie cushion to magic wands, big clown scissors, games, funny faces, bubbles to blow, Etch-a-Sketch, and other clown props.

About the props, Hamilton says, "We use anything we can to get people to laugh at their situation."

Hamilton says laughter has numerous benefits. She says, "Patients feel like they have something to do with their time. They feel useful, and it bolsters their sense of humor." Hamilton goes on to say that a "strong sense of humor and laughing a lot" can help your immune system. She says that humor programs have long-lasting effects. A way to boost your immune system is watching other people doing good. This process is called the Mother Teresa effect. Hamilton also mentions the test conducted at Stanford University as proof that humor therapy really works.

Victor Williams agrees, and he should know. Williams is a cancer survivor. Because he had the illness, he traveled and presented programs about the health benefits of humor. It made him feel good while going through a terrible ordeal. "I was spreading my message and entertaining people until I got so sick from radiation therapy that I was nearly killed," he remembers.

After he had recovered, around 1993, he volunteered for Carolina Ha Ha. The thoughts of returning to the cancer ward frightened him. And it saddened him to see people suffering from what he too had suffered from. Because he understood so well the suffering, he bonded well with the patients. He says, "These people have pain from the disease, pain from the therapy, and pain from recurrence. It helps if someone can say, 'I know you're scared.'"

Williams developed his own character that he named Dr. Chuck Ells, which he points out, sounds like "Dr. Chuckles" if said quickly. He also coined the term "humorostiology," that he defines as "the science of the study of the funny bone." "Dr. Chuck Ells" got many chuckles by his silly doctor routine complete with a smock, stethoscope, and a glass-breaking hammer.

Williams has dedicated himself to teaching others about the benefits of laughter. He is currently working on a book called Tumor Humor. The book will contain humorous stories from cancer patients.

The use of humor as therapy is hardly a novel concept. Williams explains, "The tradition is so old that Greek physicians were known to prescribe for the patients that they visit the hall of comedians." He says the doctors would send the patients to the theater to be entertained. And the word for the science of laughter is gelotology from the Greek root, gelos, which means laughter.

Williams also says that Native Americans had clowns that worked with the witch doctors, who knew the importance of humor in healing. He says, "The third most important person in the tribe was the clown."

The word "hospital," Williams says, comes from the words "hospice" and "hostel." He says, "A hostel was a place for people to rest and be entertained like a regular inn." And these days, a hospital can be a hostel with the help of volunteers like Williams.

Trisha Cotton Dean, who volunteered with Carolina Ha Ha, says that "it's everybody's responsibility to help out with whatever skills and talents they have." She says that because most of the people were dying of cancer, they were "more receptive to what you [had] to say." "People would cry; there's a lot of emotion," Dean says. She enjoyed playing guitar and singing humorous songs. She says, "It was a really special opportunity to be involved."

Volunteers are what make humor programs work. Williams says that the majority of people working in humor programs across the country are volunteers. Terri Carroll, who plays piano and sings at nursing homes, says, "I feel like it could be one of my relatives there." She says that the people do not have much stimulation. "The people like to sing and participate or just listen to other people [sing]," she says. Carroll says that volunteering for the patients brings "happiness and cheer to their lives."

According to Williams, people "need laughter and music to break from the fear and death cycle." He says that laughter is especially beneficial for the bed-ridden. Because they do not get much exercise, laughing is great exercise for them. "There are ten major muscle groups involved," says Williams.

Williams feels that everyone at a hospital benefits from humor therapy, not just the patients. He says that clowns and strolling musicians treat the family, friends, and staff as well. He says, "If there were clowns and strolling musicians, people would check out days earlier."

He adds, "If I were king, I would put a clown on every floor."

Dina Di Maio is a free lance writer living in Raleigh.

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