We all need our doctors. Still, some anxiety often surrounds our doctor appointments, especially initial visits. Before meeting new doctors, we ask ourselves, will we like them? Can they help us?
The other day, I accompanied my husband, Mark, to a new pain management doctor for a back pain consultation. When it comes to appointments, we are both type A, and we arrived early to complete the paperwork.
Mark was presented with sheets of paper, and more sheets of paper, and even more sheets of paper.
Then we waited to be called. It seemed like forever. Finally, at the sound of his name, we popped up like jack-in-the-box toys and were directed to room #5.
There we waited some more.
After several minutes, the small windowless room felt like it was closing in.
My eyes glazed over. I needed a caffeine fix or a huge chocolate bar, or both. Mark’s eyes were closed and he was well on his way to a deep snore-y sleep. I’m envious how that guy could sleep anywhere, anytime, at the drop of a hat. On an airplane, he’s often asleep before we’re even in the air, while I’m still fiddling with my earplugs and trying to get comfortable.
With nothing to do but wait, I scanned the tiny room, which felt like it was getting tinier by the minute. There were no junk magazines to be found. Please, medical staff, hear me out. Medical offices require junk magazines for distraction, not journals. Patients really don’t want to read about innovative medical procedures. We want to be distracted with pure junk.
So I reached for my trusty and much beloved iPhone to check on messages, emails, old photos, anything to keep me awake and semi-lucid. Suffice it to say, by the time the doctor entered and stirred us from our stupors, we weren’t in the best of moods. We were grouchy. At first glance, the doctor seemed to have a pleasant manner, offering a warm welcome, and even an apology for being late.
Then he got into the nitty-gritty details, reviewing Mark’s medical history, his parents’ history, and who knows who else on the planet’s history. On and on it went. I tuned out completely. That’s when I decided to splurge on some intense emotional eating after this appointment and head to the ice cream store. Visions of ice cream cones floated through my head. Maybe a double scoop?
Suddenly, the doctor turned around and asked me how long we’ve been married. Being so checked out, and so deeply into my ice cream visions, I had to do some quick calculation.
“Well, we got married in 1986, so I guess that would be over 30 years,” I finally responded.
Then I thought, how is that detail a part of the examination, really? Can we move this along?
Actually, the question was a setup for a marriage joke that he told about a long-married couple. It was the kind of joke we heard on the old Ed Sullivan Show (yes, I know I’m dating myself). Also, it was so deeply corny and mostly forgettable, I couldn’t possibly retell it if I tried. But it was also really funny, because it was so unexpected.
Mark laughed. I cackled. I come from a long line of cacklers. My parents weren’t loud people, but they were both huge cacklers. They loved a good joke — they even loved a mediocre one — and they laughed boisterously, often to the point of getting blurry and teary-eyed.
Seeing that he had a receptive audience, especially me, the doctor continued the examination, and cracked a few more along the way. It totally alleviated the tension in the room. The rest of the visit went by quickly, and at the end, the doctor answered our medical questions.
Then I asked, “Are you always so funny?”
“In my field, with so many people in pain, humor is really helpful,” he replied, very seriously.
On the way out the door I said to Mark, “I really like him. He’s funny.”
Now, I know rationally that this is not the best reason to like a doctor, but here’s the thing. There’s really nothing like laughter to heal your soul. Also, the doctor was very nice and included me in the discussion. His empathy and sense of humor decreased the tension in the air.
Those attributes add up to a positive bedside manner. We recognize and respect that doctors spend years in medical school, specializing in their particular fields, and we trust that they know their medical stuff. But the attributes of being caring, empathetic, and having a good sense of humor are both powerful and soothing.
Actually, the doctor’s comical delivery reminded me of the late Jackie Mason. Jackie was a beloved comic for decades. When I viewed his old videos on YouTube, they got me smiling, even cackling again. Jackie often engaged with his audiences, and if someone wasn’t laughing, he’d respond in his trademark New York/Yiddishy accent, “Hey Mista, this is my best joke.”
There’s a great video of him as a guest on the Johnny Carson show discussing his one-man show on Broadway, “The World According to Me,” which ran in the 1980s. Johnny cracked up when Jackie quipped, “Johnny, there’s no room for Gentiles anymore on Broadway.”
My friend, another Mason fan, said, “He seriously cracks me up. Most of his jokes are politically incorrect, but he made fun of everyone. He gave all of us an equal opportunity to laugh.”
There is science explaining how humor has significant therapeutic benefits. An online article published on WebMD explains that a good laugh has a variety of health benefits. “Laughing triggers positive physical and mental changes that help to relax your mind,” it tells us.
‘A good laugh improves your intake of oxygen-rich air, which stimulates organs such as the heart, lungs, and muscles. The brain releases endorphins, the hormones that cause a feeling of pleasure. Laughter also stimulates rapid blood circulation which leads to a calming sensation.”
Finally, there is something we all have experienced. “Laughter can significantly lift your spirit by reducing anxiety and depression.” We love to laugh. It feels just plain great.
Don’t we all know people who are in pain, either physically or mentally? Perhaps it’s our own pain. Ignoring it, running away from it never is a good option, not for our own pain or in our relationships with others. Pain doesn’t disappear if we don’t mindfully recognize and tend to it. We can run, but we can’t hide from physical, and especially emotional pain.
You might feel awkward, you might not know what to do or say, but those aren’t good reasons for not trying to help. Greeting people with a smile is an easy first step to lightening the atmosphere. Asking how folks are feeling, mindfully and with intention, and then pausing and listening for the answer, is very therapeutic. Spending time quietly, or taking a walk, can be wonderfully soothing.
But sharing a funny line and laughing together can be downright fantastic.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and writer.