Dr. Rob: Good humor

The following is a reader take by Dr. Rob.

I don’t remember why he came to see me on that day. He was anxious on most of his office visits, so I had to spend most of my time dealing with his surplus of symptoms. As I walked in to see him on this day, he started rapidly hitting two fingers of against the top of his opposite wrist. As he continued to smack his wrist he said to me in his thickly accented and very anxious voice, “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this.”

It was familiar; it is an old Groucho Marx joke. So was he kidding me? It didn’t seem so. I paused, looked around for the hidden camera, and slowly responded (while he continued the onslaught on his wrist), “uh”¦.well”¦.maybe you just need to stop doing that.”

He stopped and the visit went on. I was right; his pain did go away when he stopped beating himself. I must be a genius.

While this story still makes me chuckle, it is very likely that later that day I also dealt with someone fighting depression, losing a spouse to death or divorce, or struggling in the grips of terrible pain. My days alternate between tragedy and silliness. So how do I ride this emotional Tilt-a-Whirl without going nuts?

I laugh.

Silly things are everywhere. When there isn’t humor, I introduce some; either by writing about mutant goats on my blog or finding peanut butter in a child’s ear. A belly laugh is never far away. Children are often terrified of the doctor’s office, but they also are the easiest to get laughing. When they tell their mother that they like their doctor, I have won.

Is it callus or inappropriate to laugh with so much tragedy? No. I have learned that sadness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. There is always some of each in our lives. Despite incredible pain, people can often still find humor and things to smile about. It is often in the hard realities that we see the irony and absurdity of life most clearly. We laugh harder when we are struck with the contrast between darkness and the light.

To me, humor is life’s frosting (fat free, no less). More than that, it is the blood that runs through my veins. If we did not have things to smile about and laugh at, how many of us could stand life? Sadness alone is intolerable; happiness does not just balance the sadness, it redeems it.

Another man left this message on my nurse’s voicemail: “I have an appointment on December the 5th at 10:15 AM to see Dr. Rob. Can you send me an appointment reminder card so I can put it on my schedule?”

I still haven’t figured that one out.

Most adults hate to go to the doctor as well (I fear the ones who don’t). My mom never went because she didn’t like to get weighed ““ and she is thin. At the doctor’s, people are self-conscious that the camera is now turned on them. I am at work and in my element, and they are out of theirs. Humor relieves the tension; it puts them at ease.

“Wow, that was quick!” a patient says as I walk in the room earlier than expected.

“Sorry. I’ll come back later.” I say, turning around and walking back out. They laugh, the ice is broken, and now we can talk.

There is a time to not joke, of course. There is a time to weep, a time to keep quiet, and a time to just listen. The visit is never about me. But humor draws us closer as we laugh together. They don’t see me as this cold, uncaring person staring over the clipboard at them, they see a trusted friend (albeit a goofy one). The distance is less, so it is easier to cry in front of me. And they do.

We live our lives between happiness and sadness ““ with a different balance of both at any given time. One is not more human than the other. Neither is ever very far away. But to you serious (read: boring) doctors and nurses out there I say: lighten up. Laugh a little. Even in the most serious moments, it is OK to find hidden joys.

Oh yes, and watch for that whoopee cushion I put on your chair.

Dr. Rob is a primary care physician and blogs at Musings of a Distractible Mind.