The use of humor in Medicine

In a recent article in the Hastings Center Report, Katie Watson presents a discussion she calls “Gallows Humor in Medicine.”  The concept of laughter in the face of challenging situations is one we often face in Hospice work.  And we laugh and find humor in our work, often as a means of coping with the harsh realities of life.  Yet, her discussion tries to look at the subject through the eyes of whether it is ethically problematic to express humor in the face of other’s trauma.  The biggest insight I found in the entire article is that humor in the medical profession is actually decreasing.  She points out that residents don’t play as many tricks on fellow residents using cadavers, and as with other places, hazing is down as well.  For many, these trends are not positive, to which I would agree.  It is true that we shouldn’t laugh at all problems and traumas, but it is important to, at least internally, have some levity in the face of the sadness.  I have quoted for you the introduction and conclusions of her piece. 

It was 3:00 am and three tired emergency room residents were wondering why the pizza they’d ordered hadn’t come yet. A nurse interrupted their pizza complaints with a shout: “GSW Trauma One—no pulse, no blood pressure.”

The residents rushed to meet the gurney and immediately recognized the unconscious shooting victim: he was the teenage delivery boy from their favorite all-night restaurant, and he’d been mugged bringing their dinner.

That made them work even harder. A surgeon cracked the kid’s rib cage and exposed his heart, but the bullet had torn it open and they couldn’t even stabilize him for the OR. After forty minutes of resuscitation they called it: time of death, 4:00 a.m.

The young doctors shuffled into the temporarily empty waiting area. They sat in silence. Then David said what all three were thinking.

“What happened to our pizza?”

Joe found their pizza box where the delivery boy dropped it before he ran from his attackers. It was face up, a few steps away from the ER’s sliding doors. Joe set it on the table. They stared at it. Then one of the residents made a joke.

“How much you think we ought to tip him?”

The residents laughed. Then they ate the pizza.

 

David told me this story fifteen years after he finished his residency, but the urgency with which he told it made it seem like it happened last night. “You’re the ethicist,” he said. “Was it wrong to make a joke?”

Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well. There is a fair amount of literature on humor in medicine generally, most of which is focused on humor in clinician-patient interactions or humor’s benefit to patients.1 There is relatively little specifically addressing the topic of this article: gallows humor in medicine, which usually occurs in interactions between health care providers.

Gallows humor is not a feel-good, Patch Adams kind of humor, but it is not synonymous with all cruel humor, either. As one physician put it, the difference between gallows humor and derogatory humor is like “the difference between whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones.”2 Many health care providers witness or participate in gallows humor at some point. After reviewing over forty medical memoirs, Suzanne Poirier reports that “Anger and gallows humor are generally accepted forms of expression among undergraduate and graduate medical students . . . but expressions of serious self-doubt or grief are usually kept private or shared with only a trusted few.”3

David’s question intrigued me as a bioethicist because it is about moral distress, power imbalances between doctors and patients, and good people making surprising choices. But it also piqued my interest as someone who enjoys joking around—when not teaching bioethics, I teach improv and sketch writing at Second City, where I’m an adjunct faculty member. But David didn’t ask me if the tip joke was funny. He asked about it in ethics’ normative terms of right and wrong.

In this article, I consider whether some joking between medical professionals is actually unethical. The claim that being a physician is so difficult that “anything goes” backstage misuses the concept of coping as cover for cruelty, or as an excuse for not addressing maladaptive responses to pain. However, blanket dismissals of gallows humor as unprofessional misunderstand or undervalue the psychological, social, cognitive, and linguistic ways that joking and laughing work. Physicians deserve a more nuanced analysis of intent and impact in discussions of when gallows humor should be discouraged or condemned in the medical workplace. They also deserve deeper consideration of physician health than the professionalism lens might provide. Surely we can advocate for the humanity of patients without denying the humanity of those who treat them…

One of medical training’s first requirements is the violation of strong cultural taboos around death and dead bodies. Dissecting corpses has generated “cadaver antics” that many older physicians recall fondly—making jokes, clowning around with body parts, and pulling pranks to scare labmates. Joking like this helps turn corpses into cadavers by framing bodies as objects. Until recently, cadaver antics were a rite of passage, initiation, and enculturation into an ethos that said a doctor is a tough person who can laugh at death. Not just not cry about death. Laugh. Today cadaver antics are rarely tolerated, and the modern approach frames cadavers as former people. Students are commonly asked to imagine lives lived before these bodies died, and to journal or discuss their emotional reactions in small groups.26 Many classes end with a memorial service students create to thank the people they have dissected for donating their bodies, and sometimes they even meet the donor’s family members.27 The concept of performativity is helpful here: how must a person change the way she or he looks, acts, and feels to both perform the social role of doctor and to be recognized as one? The modern approach to anatomy lab represents a dramatic shift away from a macho joke-about-death performance of the role of doctor, and toward compassion and connection as being performative elements that help define the role of doctor.

The medical workplace may be changing, too. I’ve heard older physicians lament that the workplace is not as funny as it used to be, that practicing physicians do not joke around together like they used to. If that’s true, perhaps one reason is that the easy in-group joking they remember was based not just on being physicians, but on the broader bond of being straight white male physicians. The increasing diversification of medicine narrows the meaning of “it’s just us” to what’s truly distinctive about providing health care, versus simple differences in physician and patient demographics. It’s also possible that the dramatic increase in women physicians has unique effects on gallows humor. It’s a generalization rife with individual exceptions, but if there are differences in stereotypically male and female forms of humor, it stands to reason that the increased presence of women might cause a cultural shift in when and how backstage gallows humor is used in the workplace. This gender shift may also have made coping mechanisms that substitute for joking about fear and sadness (like verbal expressions of these emotions) more acceptable in the medical workplace.

I applaud the cadaver lab changes, and I strongly support the backstage changes that make a diverse workforce welcome. I also support efforts to define what I think of as HOG talk (“House of God talk”) as unprofessional because shallow bullying and derogatory slang coarsen the moral enterprise of medicine and cut providers off from healthier means of coping.

Yet in some areas, perhaps the hand wringing has gone too far. Condemnation of gallows humor is sometimes premised on a category mistake (such as lumping it together with all making fun of patients28) or a double standard. For example, an article titled “Humor in the Physician-Patient Encounter” contrasts a short treatment of “Destructive Gallows Humor” between providers, which frames all gallows humor as “‘sick’ wit and hurtful humor used to separate providers from patients,” with a long treatment of “Therapeutic Humor” between providers and patients, which is “grounded on a recognition of the human condition that is shared by patient and provider.”29 What the article fails to acknowledge is the human condition that is shared by provider and provider. Critics of backstage gallows humor who are admirably concerned with empathy for patients sometimes seem curiously devoid of empathy for physicians. Medicine is an odd profession, in which we ask ordinary people to act as if feces and vomit do not smell, unusual bodies are not at all remarkable, and death is not frightening. Moments when health care providers suddenly see the enormous gulf they’re straddling between medical and lay culture are one source of gallows humor. Being off-balance can make us laugh, and sometimes laughing is what keeps us from falling over.

Empathy for clinicians does not mean anything goes; it means clinicians must be conceptualized as human beings rather than as robotic systems for care delivery. Laughing and caring for others are both sources of joy. Suggesting physicians can only enjoy one of these pleasures in certain circumstances costs them something, and therefore deserves thoughtful justification.

Should They Joke?

Insights from the humanities and social sciences supply the context required to fully analyze David’s ethics question: Was it wrong to make the tip joke? When is behind-the-scenes gallows humor okay, and when should it cause concern? Underlying all this, the ethics question may be, “When is joking a form of abuse?”—abuse of a patient, abuse of trust, or abuse of power.

To answer, I would first want to think about who is harmed by the joking.30

 

  • Within the text of the joke, who or what is the true target? Does close reading reveal it to be a defenseless patient? Or is the joke really aimed at a doctor who is defenseless against death, decay, and chronic illness?
  • Could the joke harm the way future care is delivered? By using the power of humor to frame the patient in a way the patient cannot challenge, could the backstage joke bias listeners’ future interactions with that particular patient? Does the repetition of stereotyping jokes about “patients like these” contribute to making the health care provider calloused toward a particular demographic?
  • Could the joke harm the profession by diverting anger caused by structural problems (like caseloads so high that patients feel like the enemy, or scheduling that results in chronic sleep deprivation) and releasing it on the easy punching bag of patients rather than using it to make productive changes?
  • Who is listening to the joke? Gallows humor that seems ethical backstage can become unethical in front of patients, families, or others because it has the potential to harm them directly.

 

Next, I would want to ask about the health care provider’s relationship to the joking.

 

  • What’s the clinician’s underlying intent in joking? Is gallows humor being used as a helpful defense mechanism when circumstances limit the options for processing something difficult? Is the intent to get through the day by trying to lighten an oppressive situation, or is the intent to be a jolly bully?
  • What impact might this joking have on the clinician? Is it the type of joking that helps clinicians open up to difficult experiences or frees them from intolerable burdens? Or is it the type of joking that cuts clinicians off from experiences or patients that healthy clinicians should be able to engage with?
  • How often does the health care provider joke like this? If a doctor is joking about patients and death constantly, then (even if each can be justified individually) does she need help expanding her range of coping mechanisms? Or is this joking part of an ongoing pattern (say, of objectifying vulnerable patients) that suggests deeper provider biases?

 

David and his colleagues scattered across the country after residency, but in the fifteen years that passed before he told me the tip joke, they talked about the night the delivery boy died several times. The whole thing made them sad for years, he said. “Wasn’t that terrible?” they’d ask each other on the phone. “How could we eat the food that poor kid dropped?”

In the process of trying to do good, did they become bad? I do not think so.

To me, the butt of the doctors’ tip joke is not the patient. It’s death. The residents fought death with all they had, and death won. Patient care was not harmed—the patient in this case had received the best medical care they could deliver, and he was dead. It’s hard to imagine the joke hardening these residents toward a type of patient he represents (delivery personnel?) in the future. The neighborhood’s staggering rates of crime and poverty might represent an external obstacle upsetting the residents, but residents are usually powerless to alter that type of structural factor.

I think the motivation for telling the joke was to integrate this terrible event and get through the shift. This teenager lost his life bringing these young doctors dinner. “How much you think we ought to tip him?” is a macabre summary of all that’s owed in this world and all that can never be repaid. And it looks forward—it’s a moving-on question. In a situation that horrific and absurd, a joke is the rock you throw after the bad guy’s already gone—an admission of loss, and a promise to fight again another day.

It’s important that the tip joke was told in an empty area with no family, friends, or other patients who could be harmed by overhearing. I’m usually a fan of sunshine tests and total disclosure, so I find the idea of secrecy as an ethical plus startling. But when a compassionate professional gets overwhelmed, gallows humor may be a psychic survival instinct, and that’s why it is not an abuse of patient trust when it’s done backstage and for the right reasons. Something that looks maleficent toward one patient may actually be an act of beneficence toward the patients who will come next. So yes—if the delivery boy were my son and I heard the joke, I would want to tear their eyes out. But if I was the person in the next ambulance, hurtling toward their emergency room after my car wreck, my heart attack, my rape, I’d be glad they made that joke. Because they needed to laugh before they could eat, and they needed to eat to be at their best when it was my turn.

David is a brilliant, compassionate physician who will serve patients his whole life, so I told him two things about the tip joke: I’m glad he did what he needed to do to treat every patient he’d see that night. And I’m glad it still bothers him. Because it’s good to carry that tension that tells you when you’re on thin ice. When a terrible joke is the only bridge between horror and necessity, gallows humor can be a show of respect for the work that lies ahead. So tell your jokes. Tell them somewhere I cannot hear. Then treat me well when we’re together.

For those interested, the article is free if you register with the website.  They have free limited access to certain articles.

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There’s No ‘Average’ Cancer Patient

In the following opinion piece, the question is posed about keeping a drug on the market because it helps some people but not others.  He is arguing that no matter how much we might be able to predict prognosis of cancer patients, we have to be reminded how each case is different.  Since a prognosis is an average, there are some who outpace the average significantly.  Unfortunately, with the increased concern for fiscal responsibility over patient choice, health care is losing the argument about individualized care. 

Last year, the FDA began the process of revoking Avastin’s approval for breast cancer. Some leading oncologists applauded the decision, arguing that, for the average patient, Avastin doesn’t work very well and has significant side effects.

Patient advocates and thousands of women who credit their survival to Avastin argue that it’s unfair for the FDA to remove one of the few available options for patients diagnosed with terminal cancer. They’re right.

Avastin originally hit the market in 2004 to treat other cancers, and in 2008 the FDA conditionally approved it for breast cancer. Initial testing showed that, on average, Avastin didn’t lengthen patients’ overall survival time. But it did slow tumor growth, giving many patients a longer “progression-free” survival. What this means is that dying patients get a precious few extra months of quality time they can spend with family and friends, travel rather than being confined to a bed, or get their personal effects in order.

A small percentage of patients taking Avastin have been cured of their breast cancer. But the drug’s permanent approval hinged on the results of two additional clinical studies focusing on the progression-free survival end-point experienced by the majority of Avastin users. As before, neither study found an increase in overall survival, but they did record modest gains in progression-free survival—about five and a half months longer than those on the alternative treatment. That wasn’t enough for the FDA, so the agency moved to revoke Avastin’s approval for breast cancer last July…

When well-known scientist Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer in July 1982, he was told the diagnosis meant a median survival time of just eight months. His doctor gave up on him. But he lived another 20 years.

“Means and medians are the abstractions,” he wrote in Discover magazine in 1985. “Therefore, I looked at the mesothelioma statistics quite differently—and not only because I am an optimist . . . but primarily because I know that variation itself is the reality.”

Like Gould’s doctor, the FDA and its technocratic supporters are giving up on breast cancer patients because of their slavish obsession with median response rates. Everyone can agree that, on average, Avastin does not extend most patients’ life expectancy. But some patients have responded incredibly well, living years longer than expected. The medical community calls them “super responders.” Statisticians might describe them as “outliers.” But they’re real people, alive because of Avastin.

Confronting End of Life Issues

There is a new series of blogposts at the Huffington Post Religion page about issues in end of life care written by Rev. Dr. Martha R. Jacobs.  As they come to light, I will make remarks regarding them.  The first post is a general outline regarding facing the notion of our mortality.  As you will see, while she is writing as a Christian minister and will often reference Christian sources, the ideas and topics can resonate for all of us in some form.

Abraham Verghese, M.D., recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled, “Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan.” Dr. Verghese pointed out that doctors are literally losing touch with their patients because they are looking at test results instead of at the patient him or herself. In effect, the patient becomes an “ipatient,” while the “real patient feels neglected.” The patient is looked at from the perspective of their disease or ailment or symptoms and not as being fully human…

The basic premise behind much of spiritual care is the idea that we are a composite of our bodies, minds and souls.  We are not just a body being treated for a physical ailment, but all physical ailments have corresponding spiritual and emotional ailments as well.  When we get sick, we become depressed, fearful, introspective, etc. 

As western thought shifted away from seeing the person as this composite, medicine did the same.  Doctors before the modern era were often spiritual healers as well.  While there is not a groundswell of thought to return to such a model, for it was flawed and lacked the precision of knowledge we have today, there is a general push in society that wants doctors to provide holistic care. 

We also need to look at ourselves as being fully human because a part of being human is the recognition that we will one day die. There is a 100 percent death rate in our world. And yet, there is silence on the issues that surround people as they near death. We need to accept ourselves as unique human beings who have fears and concerns about living and about dying. And we need to begin to have conversations about our mortality while we are still healthy…

Human beings both affirm and deny their mortality in the same breath.  In most religions, the daily liturgy contains references to death, often in relationship to resurrection in some future time.  While we say these words, we do not heed what the message is behind those words.  In a talk I gave to clergy about end of life care advocacy, I noted that as clergy, we are challenged with teaching people about our liturgy and what it means.  The problem is, if we ourselves don’t accept the inevitability of death, how can we possibly teach it to others. 

Their is much literature regarding the denial of death being something ingrained in each of us.  It can take years of meditative and contemplative practice to be able to sustain the thought of our own demise for more than mere seconds. 

I believe that the greatest gift we can give to our loved ones is letting them know what our wishes are as to how we want our bodies treated as we near the end of our life. Each person’s wishes are unique, so we need to tell those who love and care about us what our wishes are while we are still healthy. Conversations need to happen before we are wheeled into the ER, when it is too late to have “those” conversations.

Keep in mind that a conversation like this is not something that can be done randomly.  I do think that good communication within one’s family would be quite helpful, but while we often say things on the spur of the moment, it is important that families carve aside time once in a while to not only discuss end of life wishes, but to also make certain that those wishes haven’t changed (which they often do when a person or his/her loved one is in the moment as opposed to when they were talking in a more abstract context).  This is true regardless of one’s cultural and religious dictates regarding medical ethics, for in most families, there is not a single system of thought that runs throughout.  Families are diverse and as such, a religious child might not be comfortable with the wishes of a parent who is not religious.  Or parent and child have different rabbis or religious leaders who advise differently.  All of these situations should be discussed openly and honestly.  We are challenged with this task because death could come at any time and we must always make sure our families are prepared. 

She concludes with the aims for her column:

I will be using this column to educate people so that we can have end of life discussions while we are still healthy. I will include theological and sociological as well as biblical ways to look at and talk about sickness and end of life issues. I will also include various “hot button issues” such as the use or withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration, euthanasia and physician aid in dying. Further, I will write about the dying process, “do not resuscitate” orders, use of pain medications, reasons to have a completed health care proxy form and other topics that will hopefully spur you to confront your own fears and concerns about dying and death, so that you will feel more comfortable talking about these issues. My hope is that after you read my posting, you will be able to use it to open the door to conversations with your loved ones about what you would want done with your body as you approach the end of your life.

I look forward to your comments on my postings and hope that we can engage in a meaningful dialogue around our own “denial of death.”

(cross posted here)

Doctors fail empathy test in 90% of cases

Doctors fail empathy test in 90% of cases

It continues to be a sad state of affairs for doctors as they are continuously questioned about their emotional responses to patients.  I think it is a very telling study in showing the challenge of being a doctor and caring for many people in different stages of illness.  Training doctors in being empathetic is very important.  Yet, to some extent, doctors lack empathy often not because they really do but because of the pressures of maximizing visitation instead of making each visit valuable unto itself.  Ah, the joys of the insurance system.

May The Brain Death ‘Controversy’ Die A Dignified Death,Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD

May The Brain Death ‘Controversy’ Die A Dignified Death,Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD.

For any of you who have read this op-ed, did you also feel a sense of anger after?  For anyone following the brain-death controversy, this particular opinion piece misses the boat completely.  The argument that many are floating against the RCA relates to how we should relate to the morality of giving and receiving organ donations in light of the psaq that brain-death isn’t a clear cut decision of the moment of death.  Instead, Rabbi Glatt has to get into a whole piece about the non-democratic nature of psaq, which seems completely irrelevant.  Besides, as a Rabbi once shared, no halachic argument can be made in the vacuum of the Beit Midrash.  If the argument cannot hold muster in practice, then the argument is not a true representation of the halacha. 

This controversy does not, and cannot, have a simple scientific resolution, despite what anyone may claim. Science does not and cannot answer metaphysical questions. The definition of death according to science is, however, open for debate and can change by popular vote of the appropriate academies or respective legislative bodies.

On the other hand, halacha is immutable, although its ramifications, based upon the available facts, may change. The “halacha lema’aseh” may in fact be different today than years ago for many issues, because of technological advances and/or better understanding of the problem. Halachic analysis requires taking the best scientific evidence available and using the halachic process to provide “lema’aseh” answers to real questions posed.
 
Based on this unbiased straightforward approach, indeed the only possible current resolution to the brain death halachic controversy is “Ailu ve’ailu divrei Elokim chaim.” There simply is no overriding clear-cut halachic reaction that all gedolim agree is the correct lema’aseh response. And that is the one incontrovertible fact that seems to be forgotten amid all the tumult. Therefore it is very sad for me to see this beis midrash “controversy” itself take on a life of its own…
 
Not every person (or rav) is entitled to a halachic opinion. Having knowledge in one area of science or halacha does not automatically provide expertise in another area. How much more so (kal va’chomer), then, the need for individuals to refrain from proffering opinions on matters about which they are not qualified. And the vast majority of Jews are simply not qualified to render a halachic opinion on brain death.

 
A very undemocratic viewpoint, I know, but one I heard echoed many years ago in a class by a great rabbi. One of the students commented that the Taz appeared more correct to him regarding a particular halacha. The Rav quickly responded, “The Shach is not losing any sleep” because you agree with the Taz.
 
One cannot simply vote and count up how many people think or feel a specific opinion is correct in the brain death controversy – it is an exercise in futility, even if all the voters have the title Rabbi or Doctor in front of their name. While politicians may do this (“acharei rabbim lehatos” in last week’s parshah), it does not mean we should poll the electorate and pasken accordingly.

One more issue is his misuse of aharei rabbim lehatot, for it does refer to majority decision making.  While it is true not everyone gets a say, it doesn’t mean halacha is not “voted” on and that the majority decision wins ala Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as seen in Mishnayot Shabbat.

Private Funerals Now Streamed Online – NYTimes.com

Private Funerals Now Streamed Online – NYTimes.com.

In the continuing saga of cyberspace and death, this article from the NY Times speaks about the increase in funerals being broadcast online for people who can’t make it to the actual funeral.  This struck a personal chord with me because about 4 years ago, when my grandmother’s sister died, I was asked to go to the funeral and broadcast the funeral over speakerphone.  At the time, I felt both a sense of strength in being to provide this for my grandmother, but also a sense of strangeness, for how would the other funeral attendees see this.  I can’t imagine a funeral over cyberspace.  Yet, I think this is a valuable use of our interconnectedness because no longer is someone who is physically unable to attend a funeral preventing from getting some form of closure.