The laugh factor – ancient art of mirth still good for what ails you


Don’t worry, be happy

The more I live, the more I think that humor is the saving sense  Jacob August Riis

 Somebody – okay, everybody – once said that laughter is the best medicine.

Granted, back-fence physicians also claim that enough chicken noodle soup can cure everything from plantars warts to irritable bowels to ebola. But even as a blind pig will occasionally turn up an acorn, so a spoonful of sugar really can help the medicine go down, and may even offer an apple-free method for keeping the doctor away. Nothing personal, Doc.

Trouble is, sickness comes in a broad range of styles and colors. While a discount clown and a few balloon animals may easily divert a child in bed with the measles, a person diagnosed with cancer can be a tougher audience. From the moment the word “positive” is first uttered, the cancer patient quickly becomes caught up in a whirling, slow-motion cyclone of medications and doctors, neither of which are especially funny. Throw in a blizzard of insurance forms, a sea of cast-down eyes and the shadowy specter of awaiting Charon, and one might sooner crack a coconut with a hard stare as crack a smile.

But one must try, and not just because a cheerful disposition is about the only thing an HMO can’t charge a co-pay for. As it happens, laughter works.

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones  Proverbs 17:22

 Fact is, folks in the leech trade recognized humor’s restorative properties long before a diapered Hippocrates licked his first candy thermometer. Greek physicians of old commonly prescribed convalescent cases a trip to a “house of comedians,” and better Roman hospitals often kept comics on staff to cheer the sick. In medieval times, surgeons told jokes to distract their patients during surgery.

Of course, ancient medicos also believed that bat poop, taken internally, effectively cleansed the body of poisonous vapors, malevolent demons and Syrian spears. Fortunately, modern research amply supports their conviction that good spirits are good for what ails you.

Before anyone does anything rash, like blow the rent money on a Monty Python boxed-set, it should be noted that laughter doesn’t actually cure anything, at least not directly. But studies cited by the American Cancer Society strongly suggest that a hearty chuckle now and then confers numerous physical and psychological benefits. For starters, the simple act of laughing increases breathing, which spurs oxygen use and raises the heart rate. Next, even mild hilarity decreases the level of neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones in the body. Less stress means more laughter means less stress and so on ad infinitum.

Another study links laughter to an increased tolerance for pain, perhaps through the release of as-yet-unidentified endorphins in the brain that inhibit pain transmission. And a bunch of people who make it their business to know these things report that regular doses of mirth can stimulate the body’s immune system, which is a very useful system that should be stimulated at every opportunity.

More remarkably, humorless scientists exploring the biological impact of humor on the brain have discovered that even pointless musings of self-described humorist Bob Saget can have unexpectedly sanguinary – if not particularly humorous – results. To hear them tell it, as a joke begins, the left hemisphere of the cortex immediately begins processing words. The action then moves to the frontal lobe where it’s registered that what’s about to happen will be “funny.” Moments later, the brain’s right hemisphere synthesizes those two factors and searches for a pattern. In a trice, activity in the occipital lobe hits the roof as one “gets” the joke and – except in the case of Bob Saget – laughter ensues. The point of that tiresome recitation being that humor invites the entire brain to the party, or, in psycho-speak, tends to integrate and balance activity in both hemispheres of the brain. And that’s good.

Geez. In clinical terms, even fun doesn’t sound all that fun. Still, the movement to add humor to medicine’s accepted canon of treatments is steadily gaining ground, to the point where it’s been granted a tag – humor therapy.

According to the ACS, hospitals across the country now offer humor therapy rooms chock full of funny books, funny magazines, funny videos and, sometimes, funny people – whatever it takes to turn that frown upside down. In other cases, treatment centers simply detail volunteers to sit with patients and act as friendly foils for the kind of spontaneous laughter that comes naturally with casual banter. There’s a good reason behind those hospital hi-jinks, too. Statistically, folks who look on the sunny side get better faster and stay that way longer. Who knew?

There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor  Tomas W. Higginson

 As any author of limericks will attest, humor’s principal boon is spiritual. Merriment eases the heart, calms the mind and reduces great and terrible issues to more manageable dimensions. Laughter takes the starch out of life’s many stiff collars, so to speak. In her book, Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Guidelines to Success, critical care nurse and tireless therapeutic humor champion Patty Wooten explains thusly:

The ability to laugh at a situation or problem gives us a feeling of superiority and power. Humor and laughter can foster a positive and hopeful attitude. We are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us.

At bottom, it’s about quality of life, and life is never sweeter than when punctuated by heartfelt giggles, snorts, hoots and guffaws. And it isn’t only the ill who could use a good laugh. The families and friends of the suffering carry their own freight of anxieties, and humor shines its beneficent light evenly.

Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage  Erma Bombeck

Smiling through the tears – Camp Comfort helps kids grow from grief to gladness

On the zipline

Last weekend, as on most summer days, the Rocky Mountain Village Easter Seals Camp at Empire Junction was alive with children’s shouts and laughter.

Dozens of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 spent two glorious days hiking Clear Creek Canyon’s green heights, singing time-tested campfire songs, eating hearty camp chow and bunking down with new friends on rustic camp beds. To grown-up eyes, it all looked wonderfully innocent, carefree and life-affirming – a Norman Rockwell picture of idyllic childhood memories.

But there was plenty on last weekend’s camp schedule besides horseback riding and watercolors. For instance, each camper was asked to describe how they felt when their secure little worlds exploded.

“In my shoulders I felt afraid,” said a pony-tailed angel named Emily, who lost her dad to cancer last year. Maybe 8 years old, Emily wore pink socks and an over-sized pink sweatshirt. Like the eight others in her “Chipmunks” group, she’d tried to plot the course of her personal tsunami on an outline of her thin 4-foot frame traced on an Emily-sized piece of paper. She spoke clearly, but seemed unsure of whether she wanted to giggle or to cry.

“In my arms I felt sleepy,” Emily continued. “In my mouth I wanted to yell.”

One at a time, the other children in Rocky Mountain Village’s picturesque Genesee Hall took their turn, sometimes confidently, sometimes quietly, sometimes tearfully, reliving the darkest hour of their darkest day. The small audience listened with sincere interest. It was ground they knew well.

“In my stomach I felt worried.”

“I felt cold in my legs.”

“My heart is where I felt lonely.”

After half an hour of intense personal revelation, the Chipmunks packed up their tracings, put on their shoes and ran chattering out the door. It was time to try the camp’s zip-line, and serious matters blew instantly away in the clean mountain breeze. That’s how it goes at Camp Comfort.

“Probably the most striking thing about kids is that, unlike adults, they can alternate their grief,” explained Camp Comfort co-director Wendy Snow, a social worker with the Mount Evans Hospice. “They can spend an hour talking and crying about the death of a parent or sibling, then turn right around and go fishing, and really have fun doing it. They’re amazing.”

For that matter, Camp Comfort is amazing. Now in its 13th year, the Mount Evans Hospice program is one of precious few in the country specifically designed to help children deal with grief. Today, the program runs two weekends a summer and is attracting favorable notice from coast to coast. In theory, the camp costs $150 per weekend per child but, in practice, virtually no one is ever turned away.

“Sally Wandling is the person who really got Camp Comfort started, and she used to say that children are the forgotten grievers,” Snow said. “It’s true. When a parent’s spouse dies, they’re often overwhelmed by their own grief and all the other stuff that comes after a death, and the child’s grief gets forgotten. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just what happens.”

To supplement the natural restorative powers of fresh air, lush forests and soaring vistas, each camper is issued a short workbook to fill out. Called “Healing My Heart,” it not only gives surviving parents a crucial road-map to what’s on their child’s mind, it’s often a grieving child’s first opportunity to assess their own situation.

“It makes them think about what’s happened, and how it’s affected them,” said Snow’s co-director, Barb Lamperski. “Kids don’t really know how to talk about their grief, and in schools they don’t have anyone to talk to who will ask the questions and listen to the answers. At Camp Comfort, they get to talk to other kids who’re going through what they’re going through. It makes losing a loved one seem more normal and less scary.”

Down at the fishing dock, where a handful of volunteers from Evergreen Trout Unlimited were hosting their customary and decidedly low-impact fishing clinic, Littleton twins Jeff and Joe, who lost their mom rather suddenly to illness, looked perfectly normal and didn’t seem scared at all. Tall, red-haired and 13, the brothers took turns casting into a well-stocked trout pond. After only a few throws, Joe hooked a spirited 10-inch rainbow, proudly admired it for a moment or two, and then released it back into the water.

“I like all the activities, and I really liked the zip-line,” said Joe, his soft smile at once genuine and tentative. “You get to do a lot of stuff you don’t normally do. It’s fun.”

“It was pretty tough at first,” admitted Jeff. “When you have to tell your story, it’s really tough to talk about. But once you get through it and you hear everybody else’s stories, it’s nice to know that other kids have gone through the same thing.”

At Camp Comfort, that willingness to speak frankly about tragic loss and suffocating grief can be disconcerting, even shocking, to the uninitiated. But if the campers are candid about their broken hearts, they don’t dwell on them. Pain is merely an overfull piece of baggage they share in common, and sharing its weight between them lightens the load for all. But it could be hard to hear, just the same.

“The rules all changed, and everything was different. I just didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I was sad, but it kind of felt nice that people who didn’t used to like me were nicer to me.”

“It’s nice when people say you look just like them.”

One of the most important amenities Camp Comfort offers its guests is a ready-made buddy. At check-in on Friday evening, each child was assigned a dedicated guide and companion to help orient them to camp life, listen to whatever needed listening to, and generally behave as a good buddy should.

“Leaving home after a parent dies can be scary, and we want the kids to feel safe and secure and to know that we’re going to take good care of them,” Snow explained. “The buddies are theirs for the weekend, and their only job is to devote all of their attention to the child and do whatever they want to do. Buddies are all volunteers, and they aren’t counselors, per se. They’re here to be the child’s friend.”

And that’s exactly what they looked like. Walking side-by-side and sometimes hand-in-hand, little people and their big people were everywhere seen smiling and chatting like old chums. Jeff’s old chum happened to be Golden resident Pat O’Connell, who’s finishing up his 6th year as a Camp Comfort buddy. While O’Connell freely admitted that a free weekend at camp is its own reward, he wasn’t in it for the s’mores.

“I had a friend who passed away many years ago, and another friend said I should do Camp Comfort,” explained Pat, standing just out of range of Jeff’s flailing hook. “It’s a good perspective re-set. It really makes you re-focus on what’s important.”

Across the way, the Owls assembled in the art cabin to paint colorful pictures of everyone in their lives who still loved and cared for them. With just two days to reach diverse wounded psyches, Camp Comfort takes a layered approach that seeks as much to engage as to educate. Once the markers come out, kids who could hardly utter a sound in the feelings workshop become eloquent in bright blues and reds and yellows.

“Children express themselves in different ways,” Snow said, “so we reach out to them in different ways.”

Somewhere down the valley, beyond the aspen groves to the east, a sudden eruption of squeals and hollering down the valley indicated where the “Eagle” group was trying out Rocky Mountain Village’s combination climbing tower and zip-line platform. One by one, the fledglings climbed about 25 feet to that high aerie, hooked onto a stout metal cable and took wing. Within the space of 100 yards, screams of utter terror became screams of ecstatic triumph and ended as the kind of joyous, non-specific screams that nobody over 18 can truly comprehend. But is pure exhilaration and childish delight really pertinent to Camp Comfort’s worthy mission? Absolutely.

“If this was just a grief camp where everybody sat around and cried, nobody would come, and it wouldn’t do the kids any good,” said Snow, as another shrieking meteor zzzinged overhead. “Fun is a great way to deal with grief, because it gets you out of your down-and-out mood. And it’s a good lesson for the kids that it’s okay to have fun even if you’re sad. It’s okay to feel happy.”

If smiles and good cheer are anything to go by, Camp Comfort works. Nearly 50 young children, each with a very good reason to feel angry, depressed and bitter, went home after last weekend’s adventure far stronger and healthier than when they arrived.

“The other day a mom called me,” Snow said. “She told me her son hadn’t cried since his father had died, but when she picked him up from camp he started talking about his dad and crying as soon as he got in the car. They talked about him and cried the whole way home. She was just so glad and relieved. What happens here is so important, and so wonderful.”

If Snow has a filing cabinet full of success stories to warm her during the winter months, the story that most closely concerns Evergreen resident Bill Lathrop is his buddy Trevor’s. Trevor was just 10 years old when his big brother, Tyler, was struck and killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle near his Arvada home two years ago.

“It happened on the last day of school,” Trevor said.

Last weekend was Trevor’s second tour at Camp Comfort, the same as Bill.

“The first year was really hard, but it’s easier this year,” said Trevor, softly but steadily. “I like having a buddy, and because I was here before I can help the new kids. It’s a little scary, at first.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to come here the first time, but now I’m glad I did. It really helped. I feel a lot better.”