Humor in Medicine: Look For It and You Will Find It

“Come on, bring it on!  Come on, bring it on!” the little girl chanted repeatedly behind the drawn curtain in the preop holding area.  I pulled the curtain back and peered in to see my young patient in the bed, happy as a lark, her mother sitting next to her trying to contain her laughter.  Other patients and staff members giggled as they passed by, hearing this mantra from a 3-year-old about to have surgery.

Ah, the joys of childhood.  This young lady apparently had no fear of the upcoming surgery.  Of course, that touch of versed may have had an effect, but heck, I’ll take anything that comes to make me laugh and brighten my day.

In the oft demanding environment of medicine and surgery, it behooves us to find a lighter, funnier side within the pervasive seriousness of our profession.  Yet humor is virtually everywhere, embedded in our lives whether in our workplace or outside it, and I daresay the more serious the circumstances, the more needed is the humor.

Sometimes you must look carefully with a clear and nonjudgmental mind, sometimes it will present itself smack dab in the middle of your workday, but despite location and circumstance, there is a funny side to things all around us.

“Hurry up, dear” the mother of a 5 year-old boy said as he was making the hard decision of what to choose from the prize box in our office.  “I’m going to leave without you,” she chided, slowly making her way down the hall toward the reception area.

“Wait, wait!” he cried as he quickly grabbed a multicolored “bouncy-ball” and ran down the hall.

“Wait for me!” he shouted.  “They (meaning me and my office staff) might take me away and take me to…to…college!”

Kids.  What can you say?  The funny stuff sometimes comes just as it is, in obvious, spontaneous bouts of unforgettable expressions or behavior.  The innocence of childhood is a prime breeding ground.

Yet adults can be a great source of humor as well.  Sometimes an event shocks you to your core, not as a sudden piece of happenstance, but as a developing, insidious chain of events as occurred one day while a patient was arising from anesthesia after surgery.

She was in that transition between wakefulness and sleep when she shouted, “I need two mikes!  Give me two mikes!”

The nurses and anesthesiologist looked at me.  I shrugged my shoulders and kept silent since I had not a clue as to what she was asking. 

“Is she in the medical profession?” someone asked.

“No,” I replied.  “I think she’s a school teacher.”

“Is she asking for two mics (micrograms) of fentanyl?” someone asked.

“That’s too low a dose,” replied the anesthesiologist.

“Two mikes!” she shouted again, eyes still closed but obviously breathing and stable and not in acute distress.

So the anesthesiologist, in his infinite wisdom, asked the question, “What…do…you…mean…by…two…mikes?” spoken slowly, word for word in an elevated voice.

“Two mikes!  A mikey sandwich!”

“Whaaat…is…a…miiikeeey…saaandwich?” he continued his questioning.  None of us had a clue where this conversation was going.

“You know…a Mikey sandwich…one Mike in front and the other behind!  Heh, heh,” she laughed, eyes still closed, in a post-anesthesia daze.

We all stared at one another in shock but nonetheless sporting goofy smiles.  One nurse then said, “Well, she must know two guys named Mike.  Lucky gal.”

Though seemingly trivial in the moment, such events still make us smile in retrospect.  Upon reflection long after, they take on greater meaning, even reveal some truths, and remind us to savor these moments and absorb ourselves in the humor and absurdity and beauty in the commonplace all around us, each and every day.

So look for it.  Humor is everywhere.  Sometimes it’s an obvious, slap-in-the-face circumstance or a quieter, more subtle presence requiring a mind tuned to the present-moment to appreciate it.  It forces one to step back and see things from a more overarching perspective, releasing us, albeit temporarily, from thinking too much about ourselves.  Often it merely takes the right frame of mind, the proper attitude to sift through the ordinariness of our daily lives to find those moments, which contain in essence bits of meaning and truth.  And it is circumstances as these, often short and sweet, that can turn a potentially horrendous day into a good one.

©Randall S. Fong, M.D.


  1. I totally agree about the power of humor in medicine. (I just read your post about this on include some funny anecdotes in my books, "What Patients Want: Anecdotes and Advice," and, "My Mother Has Alzheimer's and My Dog Has Tapeworms: A Caregiver's Tale." One of these anecdotes was when my mom (with Alzheimer's) wanted to tell someone that she pounded the pavement, looking for a job in NY after college, (as an accountant), but what she said was, "I walked the streets of NY, if you know what I mean." My mom might have been a sweet talker, but she wasn't a street walker." Sometimes when you're faced with an illness, you have to look for humor, and other times, the humor just comes to you. R. Lynn Barnett

  2. I appears we look at circumstances and situations in a similar manner. Thanks for sharing your mother's story!

  3. Years ago I needed hernia surgery. It was scheduled on St Patrick’s Day and my surgeon was Irish. My son, being artistic, painted a large green shamrock on my belly. Was that a belly laugh?


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