No Laughing Matter? Not Necessarily

Jennifer van Amerom avatar

by Jennifer van Amerom |

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“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the MRI, all the way from the changing room, the one and only …”

I’ve sauntered into the room and grabbed the finger heart rate monitor, only to turn it into a makeshift microphone. The nurse looks at me, clearly unamused. I know her job is tough, between the irate and demanding patients and the long hours. The lab technician, though, cracks a smile. That’s the only encouragement I need to keep going.

“Does this gown make me look fat? What if I belt it?” I grab the IV line and wrap it around my waist, striking a pose worthy of any magazine cover. The nurse can’t help herself, and a small smile emerges. The technician is now my captive audience.

As I climb on the MRI table, I steady my nerves for what I know is about to happen. The nurse will jam an IV line into my arm. I’ll secretly pray that my vein doesn’t collapse before the blue dye gets into my bloodstream. The technician will give me instructions, specifically telling me not to move for the next 45 minutes or we’ll have to start all over again.

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There’s nothing funny about MRIs, but I’m choosing to laugh anyway.

Coping mechanism

For over a decade, I’ve battled neuromyelitis optica (NMO). It’s a devastating disease that will cause endless terror if I let it. Instead, I’ve tried to use humor as my coping mechanism. I’m not always successful, but when my jokes land, it’s easier for everyone.

Picture this: You know your body is attacking itself. The pain is unbearable, so you finally agree to go to the emergency room (ER). Your loved one drives you to the hospital and frantically asks for help when you arrive. He feels helpless as he watches you struggle.

The ER nurses and doctors have never heard of NMO, so they listen to your symptoms with a calm demeanor. You know they’ve started to panic, especially when words like paralysis and vision loss enter the conversation. You feel tears welling in your eyes, and you’re not sure if it’s from the pain or because you can see the look of worry on everyone’s faces. The gravity of the situation is difficult to ignore.

At that moment, I tell a joke.

Laughter is the best medicine

During one ER visit, I vomited on the floor. Sudden nausea and vomiting are some of the NMO symptoms that don’t get enough airtime.

“I didn’t need those calories anyway,” I quietly announced to the room of physicians.

“You and me both,” one of the attending physicians responded.

His colleagues looked at him in complete shock. I wonder if doctors take a course in bedside manner. I thought his response was apropos, but his colleagues, not so much.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s OK that you’re not feeling well,” one of the shocked doctors chimed in. He threw a shady glance in the direction of the witty doctor.

“Is it? There’s nothing OK with being this sick. That’s why I’m here, right?”

The witty doctor looked relieved that I was still making light of the situation.

Steel nerves

When I was diagnosed, I received some powerful advice from one of my husband’s colleagues, whose wife has multiple sclerosis: “Never let them see you cry. Cry at home on your own time.”

At first, the guidance felt callous, but he explained his rationale.

Specialists, ER physicians, and clinicians are investigators. Not only do they have to dig for information, but they also must know the right questions to ask. They must rely on their training and memory to make an educated guess about what’s going on with you, all while racing against the clock. How exactly do tears and panic help in that situation?

If I truly want their help, it’s important to keep it together, no matter how difficult, so they can do their job.

Managing my emotions

I would never recommend to patients that they push their emotions down and not acknowledge tough moments; however, I believe there’s a time and place for that. How I feel about this disease and my fate is a topic on repeat with my psychologist.

At the height of a stressful attack, it feels like there are only two options: cry because this is hard, or laugh because I am in such disbelief that this is my life. (There’s a third option, which is fueled by anger, but that will get you restrained, so it’s not worth mentioning.)

However I decide to manage my emotions, I do so with the support of mental health experts. Humor gets me through those moments that are unfair and trying. I’m not making light of the situation, but I am choosing to control what I can.

Please share in the comments what coping mechanisms you use during stressful healthcare moments.

Note: Neuromyelitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Neuromyelitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD).


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