The Healing Power of Laughter

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by Colleen Steele |

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It is said that laughter is the best medicine. My son’s battle with pulmonary hypertension (PH) and post-transplant struggles made me a believer. However, the humor behind the laughter has often been gross, silly, a bit dark, and sometimes a little off-color.

I remember the first time Cullen fell back in his hospital bed like a fainting Scarlett O’Hara in response to his oversensitive monitor alarming for the umpteenth time. His nurse laughed, but I was embarrassed that he was joking about his health.

It didn’t take long to overcome my embarrassment and join in hospital humor with my son and his PHriends. There are only so many tears and so much anger a person can withstand before needing to laugh.

Cullen and his friend Katie Grace Groebner followed in each other’s PH footsteps, right up to a heart and double lung transplant the same year. Together they journeyed through the ups and downs. But it seemed that no matter which direction they were going, there was laughter — and a little mischief.

Katie Grace visited Cullen during a hospital stay and had his heart going crazy from laughter. His concerned nurse hurried to his room numerous times, eventually issuing an ultimatum: “Katie Grace, stop making him laugh or you will have to leave!” The warning only produced more giggles.

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Cullen and Katie Grace in 2013. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

Sometimes moms find it hard not to laugh at inappropriate times, too. Watching Katie Grace eat a sandwich with one hand and rub Cullen’s back with the other while he was throwing up was grossly amusing. A few moments later, they went back to their video game. Only then did Katie Grace put down her sandwich.

Medical staff have often joined in the comic relief. One intimidating nurse with a stern bedside manner triggered Cullen’s sarcastic sense of humor. A witty comeback stopped her in her tracks, and to his delight, with hands on her hips, she retorted: “Well, you can give as good as you get!” She gave him a sly smile, grabbed his Snickers bar and left. Cullen laughed and exclaimed, “I don’t think she’s bringing it back.” From then on, they enjoyed each other’s banter.

When running low on laughter, Cullen and his friends would break out the Mad Libs. They loved the pure silliness and the sometimes unintentional off-color humor. Except for the time Katy Doak, queen of trivia, chose a geographic location that was questioned because of shared pronunciation with a bad word. A Google search proved her right and left us breathless from laughing.

Katy also received a transplant because of PH, but she was battling cancer at the time of Cullen and Katie Grace’s recovery. Considering what they were going through together, any kind of humor felt acceptable and appropriate.

There were many innocent, fun-loving moments between Cullen and the girls. I shared one of my favorites in a previous column.

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From left, Katy, Cullen, and Katie Grace pose during a photo shoot for The Family Album Project in 2014. (Photo by Virginia Young Becker)

Virginia Young Becker, project manager of The Family Album Project, captured the delightful humor between Cullen and the girls by allowing them creative freedom during a personal photo shoot. Staging Cullen as “The Boss Man” and capturing the three distracted by cellphones caused anyone who knew this trio to laugh out loud.

Shea Williams joined our PHamily and was listed for transplant while Cullen was recovering from his. Thankfully, her wait wasn’t long. Soon we were celebrating her second chance at life and bonding over the challenges and worry that came with this gift.

There is no darker humor than joking about one’s own mortality. But for Cullen and his PHriends, it was a way to cope with reality.

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Shea celebrates after beating Cullen at a thumb war during lunch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2015. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

During a particularly difficult day, Cullen and Shea promised each other that if one of them died, the other would attend the funeral dressed as the Grim Reaper.

They laughed and shook hands on it, hoping that neither would ever have to keep the promise. Last month, Cullen sat at Shea’s bedside saying goodbye. Always faithful to the laughter, she reminded him of what he had to do.

Cullen was unable to attend her celebration of life, but he found a creative way to keep his promise. A life-size cutout of Cullen dressed as the Grim Reaper was displayed at her celebration. He was there in spirit, and I’m sure Shea was laughing from heaven.

Four years ago, Katie Grace passed away. Two years later, we lost Katy. All three girls are greatly missed. But when we think of them, we are reminded of the healing power of laughter.

In the words of Charles Dickens, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension 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 provider 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 Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


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