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Humor Prescription : Physicians, nurses, volunteers and administrators at Kaiser Permanente integrate comedy into patient care.

September 17, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times

PANORAMA CITY — Something funny is going on at Kaiser Permanente.

Family doctor Gary Kodel comes to work sporting a rainbow-colored beanie topped with a whirling propeller.

Patients kick back in their rooms laughing at Red Skelton videos and listening to old "Amos 'n' Andy" radio shows.

And a furry elephant wearing a pink tutu is often spotted pirouetting down the halls. The hospital takes such shenanigans seriously. After all, funny stuff is good medicine.

"When I walk into a room with my 'beanie-copter' hat," Kodel said, "patients have an excuse to laugh. For a few seconds at least, they relax and do not feel pain and anxiety."

"Laughter is good for our health," said psychiatrist Douglas Caldwell, a member of Kaiser's humor committee of physicians, nurses, volunteers and administrators who aim to integrate comedy into patient care.

Registered nurse Bonnie Ponaman enjoys swapping one-liners and silly stories with patients, with hospital food being her favorite butt of jokes. "It's a way to bring fun into the environment and lighten up," she said. "When we laugh together, we all feel better."

The hospital also gets patients giggling with its brightly painted "happy carts," loaded with comedy, travel and movie videos, as well as audiotapes of old radio shows, relaxation tapes, games, playing cards, crossword puzzles, magazines and books.

"If patients are interested in something, they are not lying in bed, focused on their pain," explained registered nurse Rita Fraser. "Illness is related to one's state of mind, and the cart gives us an opportunity to care for patients in a different way."

The items on the happy cart can make a dramatic difference in how people react to their hospital stay. Fraser remembers one elderly woman who was bored, confused and frightened. She screamed and sobbed and continually called for nurses. No one could calm her or ease her misery.

Then someone plugged a Red Skelton video into her VCR. As the comedian's zany antics filled the television screen, the woman quieted down. Her cries and screams ceased. She started to chuckle. Within minutes, loud bursts of hearty laughter were coming from her room.

Bubbles, an elephant costume complete with feathered headdress and tutu, is donned by volunteers to cheer up patients and visitors.

"Everybody loves Bubbles," Ponaman said. "He pops in patients' rooms to say 'Hi,' and it's like seeing Mickey Mouse: You see it and just light up." Even the staff gets a kick out of Bubbles.

"I told you I saw an elephant in a pink tutu," a nurse said to a co-worker as Bubbles twirled and cavorted. "You thought I cracked, didn't you?"

"You never know what you might find walking down these halls," her colleague replied.

WHERE TO GO

What: To volunteer for Kaiser's Humor and Health Committee.

Call: The volunteer office, (818) 375-2858.

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