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Humor helps, but it's not easy

Not even those who advocate the healing power of laughter say it's a panacea. A pioneer in the field, absent 17 years, knows this too well.

February 26, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Panama City Beach, Fla. — 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.

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."

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