CHICAGO â€” If laughter is the best medicine, Cathy Risberg was wheeling a traveling pharmacy through the hallways of Park Ridge's Advocate Lutheran General Children's Hospital one recent morning.
Wearing a set of bobbing antennae, the retired teacher pushed a â€œHumor Cartâ€ laden with toys, coloring books and jokey doodads.
She stopped first at the room of Bill Haverty, 5, from Island Lake, Ill., who had been hospitalized with mysterious back pain. She plied him with a few things from the cart â€” including a rubber duck, a bottle of bubbles and a dancing hamster â€” before going to the closer: a truly awful joke.
â€œWhy did the boy throw the butter out the window?â€ Risberg asked.
â€œI don't know,â€ Bill said.
â€œSo he could see a butterfly.â€
Bill smiled and gave a small giggle. Mission accomplished, Risberg moved to the next room.
So it goes with the Humor Cart, a decade-old program at Lutheran General designed to lighten the spirits of young patients. One of several humor-based projects in Chicago-area hospitals, it aims to use fun to prompt serious health improvements.
â€œLaughter releases endorphins, and that helps us feel better and heal,â€ said Melodie Merrick, clinical manager of pediatrics at Lutheran General. â€œIt decreases anxiety and can mean less pain medicine. It takes a kid away from a fear of the hospital, and that's important to building a trusting relationship.â€
Risberg, who said she learned the value of humor in her teaching days, started volunteering with the Humor Cart four years ago. Because children come to the hospital with all sort of maladies, from broken legs to swollen tonsils to cancer, Risberg quickly learned how to take the temperature of a room and work in delicate circumstances.
Usually, though, everyone is happy to see the Humor Cart arrive. Mason Davito, 7, of Morton Grove, Ill., who suffers from complex partial seizures, gave a sly smile when Risberg came into the room bearing a yo-yo, a pair of giant sunglasses and another joke.
â€œWhy did the football coach go to the bank?â€ she asked.
â€œBecause he wanted to steal money,â€ Mason said.
â€œWell, um, that's a possibility,â€ Risberg said. â€œHe wanted to get his quarterback.â€