There’s a Pill for That?

Dagmar Munn
Dagmar Munn

The other day a friend complimented me on my positive attitude and asked how I managed to “find the funny” in everyday things.

My reply? “I don’t go looking for it — it finds me!

To help you understand, I’ll share a couple of stories from some of my past medical visits to the ALS Clinic. It’s run by a group of wonderful people who all have the best of intentions toward their patients.

It’s just that … well … Oh, read on.

The first stop is always the weigh-in and I’m in a good mood right off the bat. Why? Because a little known consequence of having ALS is that we are encouraged to gain weight! Did you know, research has shown that ALS patients who are a few pounds overweight can slow the disease progression and live longer than those who are underweight?

For someone like me, who’s spent most of her life in a leotard and leggings, being given the freedom to plump up a little was music to my ears! True, I’m still a healthy eater and don’t go overboard at the buffet table. But all in all, it sure makes a bowl of chocolate-chip ice cream taste even better — knowing it’s under doctor’s orders!

Speaking of doctors, my neurologist is an excellent, compassionate physician whose specialty is ALS and related conditions. Her days are spent meeting with patient after patient, listening to their list of symptoms and trying to meet their expectations of a solution. So, usually when I show up, full of quips and conveying no problems to speak of, I tend to throw her rhythm off.

“I’ve been feeling really good lately doctor,” I recently reported. “These past couple months I’ve felt happy and even find myself laughing a lot.”

Raising an eyebrow she asks, “Laughing?” Continuing on — now in full doctor-mode. “Are you laughing too much or at inappropriate times?”

GULP! — I knew where she was heading. Bulbar ALS is a serious condition that can affect some patients; it’s recognized by uncontrolled bouts of laughter and/or crying plus the inability to control one’s emotions.

I answer carefully, “Well, I do tend to perceive situations differently now and am able to re-channel how I react. Rather than getting frustrated and angry … I try to find the humor in life’s twists and turns and laugh it off.”

She presses on, “How about crying?”

“No, I don’t cry easily. Unless you count sad movies on the Hallmark Channel or those awful animal rescue TV commercials; those can make me tear up. But that’s all appropriate isn’t it? I can always hold it back when I need to.”

Actually, I’ve found a workable method, especially when the people around me wouldn’t appreciate the fact that they are the ones contributing to my outburst. I follow the old adage — to stop a sneeze, think of a purple cow — but in my case, I stifle a laugh by thinking of wet farm animals. Yup, wet, miserable, standing in the rain farm animals; works every time.

Thankfully, the doctor agrees that sad animal TV commercials have the same affect her, and I’m OK. But, she ends our visit with, “If you find you can’t control your laughter anymore, we have medication.”

Medication? To not laugh so much? The mere thought that something as fun, healthy and stress-relieving as laughter has an edge and … if, you fall off the edge…?

I make a mental note to remain calm and in control for the remainder of the afternoon’s clinic.

Suddenly the speech therapist is at the door. Smiling broadly she enters the exam room with a hearty, “How’s everyone today?” At her heels are two students-in-training; full of effervescent energy, clipboards in hand and exuding happiness.

I always enjoy my sessions with this speech therapist. We found we share a propensity for wearing colorful, crazy socks. So our tradition is that at the very start of the session, before anything else, we show-off our socks. Seems her two students have picked up on the sock fetish as well, so in unison we all pull up our trouser legs and spend the next few minutes oohing, ahhing and giggling at our collection of designs. Over in the corner, my husband rolls his eyes.

What follows can best be described as a language lesson in jungle noise. With their stop-watches in hand, the format is for me to imitate the exact sound they emit. Together we make low, soft monkey calls. Then louder chirps and trills as if we’re parrots. Finally, I’m urged to yell as loud as I can, followed by several attempts at singing short songs. Once, when the phrase was: oo-ee-oo-ah-ah…my husband proudly chimed in from the corner with a, “Ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang!”

The entire room cracks up!

Remembering my recent encounter with the doctor, I focused on a barnyard full of wet farm animals. Ahh … calm again.

They finish up with a few more questions and bubble out of the room.

The afternoon proceeds along with more visits; the physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietitian, and representatives from the ALS and MDA associations. All are incredibly happy people who obviously love their jobs and helping others. More than once, I’m forced to invoke images of wet, soggy animals!

The last test of the day is a pulmonary function or, breathing test; administered by the respiratory therapist. He comes in and unpacks his equipment which consists of a hand held computer, a jumble of wires and a “device” that looks like a small hair dryer. I’m supposed to blow into the nozzle end. Small disposable cardboard tubes fit into the nozzle and keep everything sanitary from one patient to the next.

By now, my poor husband has reached Level Orange on the husband-patience scale. For the uninitiated, that’s the same as “sitting on the husband bench at the mall while waiting for your wife who is in the department store, hesitating over choosing the perfect shade of red lipstick.” You know … that level!

To combat boredom, my husband begins a light-hearted banter with the therapist, jokingly he states that the hospital could save a whole lot of money by using empty toilet paper tubes for this test rather than buying the pre-packaged ones. We are the therapist’s last appointment of the day … he’s obviously ready to go home too, so he relaxes and riffs right along adding that the tubes have two ends so why not simply turn them around between patients and double their usage. There’s more said, but it finally escalates to something along the lines of, “Why not just use the same tube for everyone? It’ll only be bad for the last patient of the day, who will have to put up with a soggy, wet tube …”

While they’re carrying along and chuckling I’m trying to stay calm and prepare for a deep breathing test.

Finally, it’s my turn — I take the hair dryer into my hands, place my mouth around the tube and give a mighty exhalation.  I get a thumbs-up signal from the therapist. “Do it again,” he says dryly.

Once more, I breathe in, tube in mouth … and while exhaling I hear my husband snicker. Completing the second test — I glare at the voice in the corner.

“One last time,” I hear the therapist command.

OK … I take a deep breath, pull myself up tall in the chair, hold my breath, place the cardboard tube in my mouth and … hear my husband’s voice, “Hey, you’re the last patient … did you get the soggy tube?”

Amid the spittle, coughs and laughs I completely lost it. The three of us shared several minutes of light-hearted laughing.

Sinking back into the chair and still giggling, I look to the therapist for help.

My brain in overload now. Where, oh where, are those darn wet farm animals? I couldn’t conjure up even one!

“I don’t think I can manage a third try,” I gasp.

“Forget it,” he chuckles. “Your first two were at a hundred percent anyway. Let’s call it a day and go home.”

So ends my example of finding the funny.

Just to ease any worries among my friends (especially those whose lifetime career has been devoted to making others laugh), I won’t be seeking the “anti-happiness” medication anytime soon. Rather, I’ll just keep on letting the funny find me — and continue writing about it, to share with you!

“Laughter is inner jogging.” — Norman Cousins