Sister Sue Tracy is shown wearing a clown nose.There are many studies out about the healing power of laughter, and doctors and clinicians at Spectrum Health agree there is something magical about having a good laugh.

With LaughFest underway in Grand Rapids, it seems appropriate to discuss the healing effects of laughter.

Health Beat sat down with Dr. James Fahner, division chief for hematology and oncology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and Sister Sue Tracy, past oncology chaplain at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, to get their take on this.

According to this well-known (and humorous) nun, laughter is a gift from God.

Sister Sue has been with the Grand Rapids Dominican Sisters for 55 years, and worked at Spectrum Health as an oncology chaplain for 15 years. She’s a local expert on laughter, and at age 74, stays involved in the community, spreading joy through laughter wherever possible.

“Laughter is carbonated holiness,” she said with a giggle. “May the fizz of faith fly high!”

Dr. Fahner is equally convinced that laughter is a powerful healer.

He said that ever since author Norman Cousins reported in the 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, the positive effects of treating himself with doses of Marx brothers movies, mainstream medicine has been fascinated by the restorative effects of laughter.

Laughter has been noted to release positive endorphins, stimulate and strengthen the immune system, stabilize blood vessels and tickle the funny bone (wherever that is). Medical researchers and experts may disagree on the mechanism, but few can argue with the results–that laughter makes you feel so much better.

At Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, laughter is a powerful common language that brings people together as a team. It gets people through difficult days of sad diagnoses and energizes and focuses them on the common purpose of caring for children and families.

Dr. Fahner says that despite the intensity and emotionally demanding environment of the children’s hospital, it is impossible to go very long without hearing–or sharing–the reassuring and normalizing sound of laughter coming from patients, families and staff.

“Even if it’s not by itself the best medicine, it is certainly in a class by itself for helping to fuel everyone on their own individual roads to recovery,” he said.

In Sister Sue’s 15 years at Spectrum Health, she was often tapped for a laugh or two when patients passed her in the hall.

“Sister, could you please tell me something funny?” a patient would ask. “I could really use a laugh today.”

Sister Sue said laughter helps connect people, giving people perspective, and is one of the few things that is still free.

“People’s response to humor is a true connector, and sharing one-liners has always been my way of making connections,” she said.

Having been an oncology chaplain, she never went into a patient’s room ready to tell a joke, but always had funny little one-liners in store for those who needed a chuckle.

Sister Sue’s top one-liners:

  1. Did you ever hear of the man who was addicted to brake fluid? He says he can stop any time!
  2. Have you heard the latest on cremation? It’s for people who think outside of the box and can make an ash out of themselves.
  3. A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who has never owned a car.

“People send me jokes all of the time, and I enjoy sharing them, too,” she said.