Nursing Professor Enhances Healing Through Humor

  • News Photo 386
    McBryde-Foster as "Patty Ann" Photo: Olan Mills Studios
  • News Photo 385
    McBryde-Foster dressed as "Merry."
July 29, 2002

by Judy Long

Dr. Merry McBryde-Foster is a nurse with an attitude. The assistant professor at Baylor University's Louise Herrington School of Nursing uses an unorthodox approach to meet some needs of her patients: she is a professional clown, which she sees as an enhancement to medicine.

"Humor affects the body's chemistry," she said. "It aids in healing."

Nursing and clowning are both natural choices for McBryde-Foster. A health career is part of her family heritage--her father was a physician and her mother and grandmother were both nurses. Although fun and happiness have always been a part of her persona, she believes her given name of Merry probably influenced her to find joy in life.

'MERRY' MERRY

"My mother said she named me Merry because I was so happy," she said. "I told her, 'but you named me before you had me around very long.' I grew up being told I was a very happy person. I don't know whether I'm happy because I was told it so much or whether that was a characteristic already there," McBryde-Foster added.

"When I realized humor had applications for health, it was really a plus," she said.

McBryde-Foster first considered professional clown college the day she graduated from her doctoral program in nursing at Texas Woman's University. She had earned a reputation for loving school, so after graduation a colleague asked her, "What school are you going to go to next?"

Without hesitation, McBryde-Foster answered, "clown college," perhaps because she passed a professional clown school on her daily drive to work.

To her surprise, the colleague shot back, "All right, a class starts next month." A month later, she began learning the tricks of the clowning profession.

HEALING EMOTIONS

McBryde-Foster said medical science knows that emotions are an important part of the whole person, and positive feelings, such as joy and laughter, help the body to heal. This understanding fits with her personal philosophy that physical and mental well-being are closely entwined.

"Most physical diseases have such a mental aspect, that when you change your frame of mind, you're doing some self-healing."

On the other hand, McBryde-Foster said many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are related to chemicals in the brain. "And depression can't necessarily be cured my making yourself happy," she added.

Humor is a topic on McBryde-Foster's research agenda. "Last fall, I took a hard look at the research and critiques of the research out there and the findings are not well-documented. They have been able to document some of the physical changes in the body when someone laughs, though," she said.

McBryde-Foster said circulation increases and blood pressure rises slightly, which provides has some advantages to your body.

"What's better is that when you laugh, you hold your breath and increase the pressure in your lungs, so it pushes the blood out into the body. We can actually measure these things. There is an indication that an increase in the function of your immune system also occurs, but more research is needed here."

CLOWNING AS A TEACHING TOOL

Clowning has been a useful tool for McBryde-Foster both as a nurse and as a teacher of nurses. She has volunteered many clowning hours at nursing homes and children's hospitals, but she also "clowns up" for new student orientation each year at the School of Nursing to give the students a humorous glimpse of what they'll be learning over the coming semesters, and she performs shows for an annual workshop that the Children's Medical Center of Dallas gives for graduates of the six nursing schools in the region.

McBryde-Foster has five different clown personalities and corresponding costumes -- Patty Ann, a five-year-old girl who relates to children; Merry, a juggler clown; Sunbow, a nurse who wears scrubs and a rainbow wig and takes blood pressure with a bicycle pump; Shroum, a jester and mime who "wuggles" (juggles and walks at the same time); and Tommy Funflower, a character Merry created with a breast cancer patient named Tommy, who also helped design and make the clown's costume. Tommy Funflower performed only once -- at the 1995 Tyler Rose Bowl Parade, but McBryde-Foster said the clown's participation was an enormous accomplishment for the woman, who died only a few days after the parade.

"Sometimes emotional growth and healing take place when physical healing does not," McBryde-Foster said."

VALUE OF HUMOR

Her work with terminally ill patients like Tommy has given her unique insights about the value of humor for the terminally ill. She believes most terminally ill people actually improve their quality of life.

"They set priorities appropriately, they think about what they need to say to people in their lives and whether they need to forgive."

When patients lose a function, they look for ways to improve their lives in areas they do have, which McBryde-Foster likens to taking an "inventory of your gifts."

"They may have to let go of some physical abilities, but they compensate and let the people around them know it's okay, and they get down to the real business of living. It's when patients get to that stage, they appreciate humor," she said. "They laugh at things that may seem moribund to somebody else who doesn't understand. They seem to think, 'Hey, I only get to do this once, so I'm going to do it right and not waste my time crying.' Then it's appropriate to use humor."

McBryde-Foster believes healing is more than physiological change. Humor, she said, helps bring about the emotional part of healing.

"When you are sick, you can see better what is really important. How important is the perfect home and a nice car? The little things make life special. Having a cup of coffee in the morning -- that's special. And being able to laugh -- that's a good quality of life."

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