Laughter in Hospitals – Bea Sawers

Laughter in hospitals

People love to laugh – surely there are no arguments there. Comedy is a multi-billion dollar industry with film and television, comedy festivals, radio shows, youtube channels, podcasts and comedy clubs across the globe. Spending money to sit and laugh is a pretty popular way to spend a Saturday night.

But why do we love to laugh so much? If you ask a scientist they will tell you it’s because laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s feel good chemical. If you ask a therapist they will tell you laughter is a social experience that creates bonds and strengthens relationships.  An anthropologist might tell you that laughter is one of the distinguishing features of humans displaying an emotional signal of enjoyment. While a pastor will surely tell you it’s because God the creator is kind and gives humans the joy of laughter as a gift.

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What would a child in hospital say about laughter?

My job has one main task – to brighten the day of sick kids in hospital. I walk around the hospital with a fellow worker, both dressed as silly characters and we make kids laugh. From room to room, ward to ward, our job is done when the halls are filled with the sound of giggling children. It is, without a doubt a highly sensitive space to provoke laughter – from PICU to Emergency, to oncology to palliative care. Hospital can be a scary place, and when a child is sick and in pain the experience can be overwhelming. Building connection through play and laughter helps kids to forget their pain (even momentarily) and rediscover the joy of being a kid again. In my experience, this is seen most obviously with children living with life-limiting disease, disability and chronic health conditions. These children miss out on so much of their childhood, playing with friends, riding bikes, climbing trees, playing hide and seek. These important ‘rites of passage’ that children need to experience to forge social connections and hit developmental milestones become a seemingly impossible task for a child in an isolated hospital room. My role, as a roving performance artist within this space, is to use humour and play to help create those moments of childhood that seem so uneventful, but prove to be so important.   

The story of Dr Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams (made famous by the 1998 Robyn Williams film) sparked a global interest in the use of humour and play in the healthcare system. A growing body of research supports the theory that laughter may have therapeutic value.

While my experience of over 5 years working in paediatric hospitals across Australia may be unquantifiable and anecdotal at best, I can confidently say the giggles of a seriously-ill child become contagious. Mum, Dad, siblings and health professionals all smile at an instant and the room feels lighter and warm. Perhaps a daily dose of laughter should be charted on their care plan as well.

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Laughter in hospitals 2

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Remember to just have a go, if it doesn’t work that’s ok! Try again, or try something new. You may not need anything more than a friendly approach with some families. Just be mindful about when you need that extra little thing to win that child over. Don’t be afraid to think outside the square – creative ideas that are quick and easy to implement could be your greatest asset!

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After more ideas?

If you are after more ideas, or would love to share some of your tricks of the trade please get in touch! You can reach me at beasawers@gmail.com.

Bea SBea Sawers is a Social Worker with 15+ years of experience working with children and young people in NSW Health, the NSW Department of Education and leading charities in Australia.

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