Over the years I have spent a lot of time in hospitals and have the greatest respect for the NHS. I owe my life to the care and treatment I have received. And even when things haven’t gone quite according to plan, I have always tried my best to find the humour in a situation. Hospitals can be a rich mine of comic material – after all, they provided me with excellent material for my one-woman show, Sequins On My Balcony. I firmly believe that black humour is an excellent coping strategy and can help to diffuse a difficult or frightening situation like nothing else.
Even though – through habit and necessity – I have toughened up over the years and now have quite a high pain threshold, I am still on the squeamish side. The other day some fellow patients and I were swapping experiences, and agreeing that there are times when members of the medical profession either forget that you’re there or don’t fully appreciate what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a procedure.
Here are three of my most recent ‘highlights’:
- At my GP’s for yet another smear test (which for some reason always presents a problem), the doctor says to me, jovially, donning latex gloves and brandishing the dreaded instrument of torture, ‘In cases like yours, it’s a bit like an Easter Egg Hunt. There are times when you strike lucky.’ And, a few minutes later, after yet another failed attempt (the third, as it happens) – ‘But today wasn’t one of them.’
- Doctor to trainee while performing my recent lung drainage procedure (while I’m fully awake), ‘Now here is where we’re going to make the incision. She’s quite skinny so we’ll go in between the ribs. Try and avoid puncturing the lung.’ (Yes, please do.)
- Trainee to nurse when about to administer an injection in my stomach, ‘Gosh, look at the size of that needle! It looks like it was designed for an elephant.’ (Not reassuring when you have a phobia for needles and are far from elephant sized.)
I have found that consultants can display a wonderfully dry sense of humour. One of my favourite stories involved my friend Margaret, who was treated in a Parisian hospital, having fractured her ankle tripping over a paving stone. Disorientated by the inability to understand what was going on and weakened by the lack of vegan food available, she was thrilled to see the English-speaking doctor.
‘Am I going to die?’ she asked him, plaintively, already planning her Gothic-inspired funeral and displaying very un-British melodramatic tendencies.
‘Madame’, he said, ‘we are all going to die. But in your case, not today.’
A brilliant response and – although I’m not prone to making generalisations – one that strikes me as characteristically French. (One of my favourite books about ageing well is entitled The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body from Rusting: A French Recipe for a Long Life, Well-Lived, which I can’t imagine being penned by any English psychologist.) Having been a patient in both France and the UK, my experience is that we Brits tend to play down our ailments, rather than fully embracing them. (Unless, of course, you are Margaret and channelling your inner Gauloise.)
When asked how I am, ‘I’m fine’ is my default reply. I just assume that people ask out of courtesy and don’t really want a detailed response, or even necessarily a truthful answer. Not so in France. My French ex-boyfriend could spend at least 15 minutes expounding on a litany of complaints – from ingrowing toenail to irregular bowel movements – when a friend of mine innocently asked if he was well. And he was not alone. Health is to the French what the weather is to the British.
Anyway, I digress. Have you had peculiar/funny/mind-boggling encounters with the medical profession, either at home or abroad? Or are you a medical professional who uses humour to cope with the many daily challenges you encounter? If so, I would love to know more.
Sometimes situations are far from hilarious but seeing the funny side can be quite cathartic, lightening the mood and alleviating stress, not just for patients but for healthcare professionals too. I believe that humour has an important role to play in hospital dramas. As psychologist Thomas Kuhlman put it, it’s ‘a way of being sane in an insane place’.