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Humor can help reduce stress
By M. P. Ravindra Nathan, MD, FACC

Lately, the medical profession has been besieged by too many conflicts and upheavals. Stress level is at an all-time high. Physician-patient relationship has suffered considerably. My good friend, Len, an orthopedic surgeon in his young 50s, recently announced that he is quitting.

"Why, at such a young age?" I asked.

"Oh, it has become too dangerous to practice now. You don't need much to be hit with a malpractice suit nowadays."

I guess this is the prevailing sentiment with many others too. The escalating premiums for liability insurance, the ferocious malpractice climate, the tight stranglehold of bureaucracy and more have us stumped. I know several others also are considering early exit strategies. But quitting is certainly not an option for many except for those who are truly ready for retirement.

Unfortunately, it is not just the medical profession but life itself is full of chaos and conflicts. So, we need to do is to put some fun and humor into the medical practice. After all, patients have entrusted with their lives. That is a great honor and privilege.

Once I started lightening up and listening to my patients' stories, life and my practice have become more enjoyable. As Hippocrates advised, physicians should cultivate a serious and respectable image but at the same time use wit in interacting with their patients.

Now, humor is always on my radar screen. You would be surprised how patients open up and entertain you with interesting snippets from their lives - some of them quite hilarious and others poignant. All you need to do is just listen. Let me give you a sampler.

Vernon, a big, burly man, suffered from hypertension and peripheral vascular disease; he also imbibed moderately. He came to the office one day with a blister in the foot, which had just popped. My nurse cleaned it with an alcohol wipe. "Oh, boy, that stings a lot," he jokingly complained.

"Come on, Vernon, don't be a baby," I teased him. As he was leaving, I handed him a prescription for a topical antibiotic with the advice, "Clean the wound twice a day with alcohol wipes, and apply this cream."

"You think I can apply the alcohol from inside?" he asked with mock seriousness. We had a good laugh.

One blonde lady gave me a real surprise during her initial visit. She was a true bleached blonde. I admired her hair and seeing my looks she said seriously, "I am very light headed."

Thinking she is dizzy, I asked her to lie down quickly and started taking her pulse. Then, with big grin, she said: "Oh, I simply meant I am a blonde!" We had a good laugh together. Now the humor is spilling into my other activities too. In our "Yoga for Relaxation" class on Wednesday evening, there are at least four doctors present at any given time. We keep our beepers in one corner, stretch our yoga mats, and begin. One day, our beepers started going off one by one and all of us had to get up and go and look at the messages. The beepers had the same tone!

"There goes our relaxation," commented our benevolent instructor.

Physicians can use humor to entertain their patients. Patients often use humor to get attention or as an outlet for their emotions and frustrations. Primary-care physicians are working harder, seeing more volume with less income and specialists are under pressure because they have to cover so many hospitals and their schedule is tight.

Hence, it is difficult to spend quality time with each patient. A little attentiveness to the patients' stories, a touch of humor and a pat on the back usually put a smile on the patient's face and improve the will to survive. As Norman Cousins says in "Anatomy of An Illness," "Šit helps make it possible for good things to happen."

It also will make your day go easier.

Cardiologist Dr. M. P. Ravindra Nathan lives in Brooksville.

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