But one thing we are not taught in medical school is humour. I've met far too many straitlaced doctors who wouldn't know funny if it walked right up to them and slapped them in the face with a fish. But in my experience, patients appreciate a well-placed joke, even if it's at their expense. "Is there any chance you could be pregnant?" is my standard bit when performing a trauma ultrasound on a man. A few of them have looked at me like I have two heads and a pair of antennae, but most of them laugh even as they try to ignore the pain of their fractured leg. It's a small token of humour, but even that is often enough to break tension and calm people significantly.
But several years ago John (not his real name™) taught me that humour in medicine is not just for the doctors, among other things.
John was in his late 70s when he was referred to me with a colon mass that had been found on colonoscopy after he had noticed blood in his stool. He walked into my office with a big smile on his face, something I found unusual and concerning for someone meeting the guy who would ultimately be whacking out half his colon. However, as soon as he began speaking, any concern I had evaporated rapidly.
"Hiya, Doc!" he greeted me with a very firm, warm, friendly handshake, the type normally reserved for your favourite uncle or your company's CEO. "So you're the one who's going to be cutting me open and saving my life, eh? I have five grandkids, so I need to be around to spoil them, you know."
I liked him instantly. This is my kind of guy.
After going through his medical history and biopsy results, I explained the procedure to him in great detail, including all the potential risks: bleeding, infection, anastomotic leak, anaesthesia, reoperation, death. He nodded along, listening intently.
"So if you take out half my colon, would that make it a semicolon?" he said with a perfectly straight face, followed immediately by a crooked grin and then a solid guffaw.
I couldn't help but laugh with him, and we traded jokes for the next 10 minutes before saying goodbye.
John's surgery soon thereafter was uncomplicated, and when I went to see him in hospital the following day, his sense of humour hadn't faded one bit despite his postoperative pain. I took off his bandage to look at his incision (which I had closed with surgical staples), and he winced slightly as he chuckled through his pain.
"You know I've always wanted a belly button ring. This isn't exactly what I had in mind, though. Maybe I can hang a charm from the staples like a bracelet!"
I laughed and palpated his abdomen gently, and he winced again. I apologised for hurting him, as I explained that I wasn't trying to hurt him, I was merely performing my routine postoperative examination.
A few days (and many jokes) later, John went home to finish recuperating, which he did. His daughter and I kept in touch over the next few years.
I found out several years later that John died of old age, peacefully in his sleep, at home, surrounded by his family. His daughter told me that his jokes never stopped, even after he lost his wife, and up through the very end.
There were few people left on Earth who had as much reason as John to be bitter and angry. If he had been the biggest curmudgeon I'd ever met, I could not have faulted him one bit. However, John instead chose to use humour instead of melancholy, puns instead of pain.