Dying laughing – Georgina Hoddle RN


from Luke’s Journal 2019 | Laughter | Vol. 24 No.2

Dying laughing

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength. Proverbs 17:22 NLT (1)

“You have to die of something” said Mum as she sat up in bed, her nightie coloured-coded with her Sobrani cigarettes.    She was wearing a large button-brooch that read “I am ill” – and she was.

People would come to the door with long faces, the pitch and tone of their voices low and sullen,  but you could be sure to hear roars of laughter within minutes as Mum entertained them with her stories. Most of her tales were quite fanciful but very funny.  She saw the irony in having spent a life smoking but not getting lung cancer – she had metastases in the liver, unsure where the primary was – maybe in the stomach?

One particular day, just before I had to fly back to Italy where I lived with my two children, Mum made me laugh when she asked me to colour her hair black. She’d always had black hair and in the good ol’ days she’d gone to the hairdresser every week.  With only a few weeks to live, Mum said she “didn’t want to be caught dead with grey roots!” Truly, you had to laugh because her expression was dead-pan.

“Mum made me laugh when she asked me to colour her hair black… Mum said she “didn’t want to be caught dead with grey roots!””

By this stage of her illness Mum had sought religious and faith counselling, and had become well aware of her destiny.  She recited, “Baby Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child….” which she’d taught me as a small one.  I don’t know if my sisters learnt it too – I must ask them one day.  When Mum said goodbye to me, “Darling, you have to go home to your boys now, your job is done. I know I’ll see you again one day,” – she looked me softly in the eyes, and she wasn’t laughing. This was a dead serious moment.  I cried all the way to the airport in my sister’s car.

Dying laughing 2My great consolation was hearing that Mum had requested the prayer of St Francis of Assisi to be read at her funeral, which I couldn’t go back to Australia to attend.  It was August 1991 and I was back in Italy where I had heard of the work of Dr Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams who was setting up laughter clinics all over the country. We have the clown doctors in Australia since 1966(2), but the true story of  ‘Patch’ Adams in the USA sparked a lot of controversy.  Reviews on the internet regarding the eponymous film about his life are divided(3). However, there is no doubt that he caused people to think about the many euphemisms for dying – kicking the bucket, falling off the perch, giving up, cashing in all the chips, God saying “have a rest”…     (this quote is from the scene where Patch Adams is dressed as an angel, with a man who is terminally ill.)

“However, there is no doubt that he caused people to think about the many euphemisms for dying – kicking the bucket, falling off the perch, giving up, cashing in all the chips, God saying “have a rest”…     (this quote is from the scene where Patch Adams is dressed as an angel, with a man who is terminally ill.)”

In Australia, we have had clown doctors, Dr Starlight and company because of (amongst others) Jean-Paul Bell –  2015 NSW Senior Australian of the Year Nominee.

Jean-Paul is known as a humour-manitarian’  and he and his teams elicit laughter from people who live with dementia who truly have difficulty in seeing anything funny about their world.  The work of laughter therapy is not just anecdotal, there is evidence that laughter is good medicine. Wait a minute! God said that first – Proverbs 17 (quoted above):(1)

As we grow into old age and infirmity we could become like little children.  However, we should not fear this as, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  Not all of us will end up with walking and continence aids – many will retain our faculties and mobility.  That should not stop us from being able to laugh like children do – candidly, with mirth and hilarity – to reclaim that essence and trust that all is well with our soul, in humility.

Mummy Marcelle soon after her liver cancer diagnosis, with youngest daughter Marina who gave her the ‘I am ill’ badge. Note cigarette. Marcelle’s joke line was she wasn’t dying of lung cancer.

Have we not learnt that laughing is good for you?

“Remember laughing? Laughter enhances the blood flow to the body’s extremities and improves cardiovascular function. Laughter releases endorphins and other natural mood elevating and pain-killing chemicals, improves the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to internal organs. 

Laughter boosts the immune system and helps the body fight off disease, cancer cells as well as viral, bacterial and other infections. (4,5)  Being happy is the best cure of all diseases!”  Patch Adams

So what do we propose as part of the treatment for old age and infirmity or paediatric cancer?  Mirthium! (Generic name : Laughtilyouplotz) (3)   God said in Ecclesiastes 8:15, “I commend mirth”….. How might physicians best harness this natural modality for their patients?(4) “Humour therapy is completely safe, because it is inexpensive, risk-free and readily available, there is little reason  not to try practicing humour therapy” (4,5).

Unless, of course you’re going to “split your sides laughing”.

Dying laughing 3Perhaps we could start by making medical schools funnier(6-8)as  Norman Cousins, author of “Anatomy of an Illness”, advises. Medical and nursing students are taught standard communication skills in order to empathise with patients, eg. “Oh, that must be difficult,” in simulated contexts.  In reality, they then have difficulty in seeing a place for humour amongst professional codes of conduct and responsibilities.(6)

The British Medical Journal recently had a debate on the topic of  “Good doctors and a Sense of Humour”. Contributors suggested that a good doctor should have a sense of humour that improves rapport with patients. However, it must be of good taste, and natural, not exaggerated and, if possible, initiated by the patient themselves.(7)

Is the following statement true of our professions?  “The purpose of a doctor or any human in general should not be to simply delay the death of the patient, but to increase the person’s quality of life. ”  (Patch Adams).  We nurses, together with other healthcare professionals, hold this principle high with holistic, person-centred care.(9).

georgie-hoddle-photo.jpgGeorgina Hoddle (Georgie) is a registered nurse (RN) who currently works as an Aged Care RN on a casual basis.  She is very casual because of her age. Georgie studied General Nursing at St Luke’s Hospital decades ago, retrained as an RN at Royal North Shore Hospital in 2005, and  graduated from Macquarie University in 2011 with a Masters in Applied Linguistics (TESOL).

In 1991, Georgie had the privilege of spending the better part of two months nursing her dying mother at home – amongst sadness, hilarity and some prayer. Twenty years later Georgie became a Christian.  She then became a member of Nurses Christian Fellowship Australia (NCFA) and is now serving as NCFA Vice President.

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  1. The Bible (NLT) Proverbs 17:22
  2. https://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/honour-roll/?view=fullView&recipientID=1264 accessed 15 January 2019
  3. Belcher, A (2016) Guest Editorial: Laughter for Communication and Coping in Children. J Paed  Surg Nurs. 5:83-84
  4. Dexter, L, Brook, K & Frates, E (2014) The Laughter Prescription: A tool for Lifestyle Medicine.
  5. CS Mott Children’s Hospital (2016) Make better health decisions: retrieved from http://www.mottchilderen.org/health-library/aaa
  6. Claridge, E (2018) Why medical school should be funnier. (Opinion piece)  https://healthydebate.ca/author/ec retrieved 7 January 2019
  7. BMJ (2018) 324:1533 https://bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/26/good-doctors-and-sense-of-humour, retrieved 7 January 2019
  8. Weisse, AB (2017) Humour in medicine: Can laughter help in healing? Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cnet) 30:378-381, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/PMC5468052/ retrieved 7 January 2018
  9. Australian College of Nursing: Position Statement on Person-centred Care. 2014