As A 'Fan' of Health Care, Comedian Jerry Lewis Tells Us:
"I am a fan of all of you and what you do," comedian
Jerry Lewis unabashedly told nearly 100 Jefferson doctors, nurses, administrators
and patients gathered in the Connelly Conference Center at the Bluemle Life
Sciences Building. "I am in awe of doctors, nurses and all other people
who work in medical units. To me, and to your patients, you are all heroes."
Those passionately expressed words of praise set the tone for a remarkable
experience. For the next two and one half hours, Mr. Lewis's quips, insights
and serious dialogue with many of the invited guests gave Jeffersonians
a rare glimpse of the serious side of the world-famous comic known best
for his antic humor.
In Philadelphia while on national tour of the Broadway musical, "Damn
Yankees," in which he stars, Mr. Lewis took an afternoon off to speak
with Jefferson caregivers about ways he thinks humor can help patients'
While acknowledging the obvious - that treating illness is a very serious
job - Mr. Lewis stressed repeatedly how he thinks humor helps the task.
"If you create an atmosphere of fun you will get great work,"
Although his message was intensely serious, the comic genius adhered to
his own "prescription" by frequently showing his trademark humor
The audience responded with long stretches of rapt silence, broken by eruptions
of laughter. A few particularly poignant stories brought a tear or two to
some people's eyes. All seemed touched by Mr. Lewis's sincerity and sense
"Lighten Up" Is the Message
Casually dressed in jeans, v-neck sweater and open-collared olive button-down
shirt, Mr. Lewis looked more like 51 than 71. Over and over he stressed,
"If you lighten up, you will help yourself - and your patients."
"But you must do this for yourself first, not for your patients,"
he reiterated. "When your patients see a lighter man or woman, this
will relax them and earn their trust."
Mr. Lewis sympathized that caregivers are educated and conditioned to be
"very serious." Yet, in spending "nearly 50 years watching
patients and parents affected by neuromuscular illness," he gave many
examples where "a light touch" helped healing.
During most of that half century, Mr. Lewis has conducted national telethons
to fight muscular dystrophy. The annual telethons have raised $1.6 billion
to date, Mr. Lewis said. He whimsically compared that to his first telethon
in 1949, limited to New York City, which raised $11,000. To make the sum
a "more respectable" $15,000, Mr. Lewis added $4,000 of his own
Alluding to "personal reasons" as his motivation for starting
the telethons when he was only 20, Mr. Lewis admitted the challenge of being
told "it couldn't be done" spurred him even more.
"A leading doctor told me that nobody would give money to a young comic
for a disease that then didn't even have a name. Hearing that only pushed
me more to succeed."
Answering Many Jeffersonians' Questions
While answering more than 20 questions from involved audience members, Mr.
Lewis reiterated that most caregivers have an innate sense for "lightening"
their interaction with patients. "Just trust and use your 'inner government,'
and you'll see how natural it can be."
He finds helping others so gratifying it's often self-therapy. In chronic
pain himself since 1965 when he backflipped off a stage and cracked vertebrae,
sometimes his pain is so severe his understudy must do the show. But the
pain diminishes when he is "busy helping other people."
In concluding, he looked around the room of Jeffersonians saying, "I
see lots of people here who have bought in to where my heart is. I see in
your faces no despair, no doubt. That's because what I've told you is real.
I will leave here very satisfied."
As the world-famous entertainer left to prepare for that evening's performance
at the Merriam Theater, the thunderous applause of 100 Jefferson fans -
"converted" for a new reason - provided his exit ovation.
Why Did Jerry Lewis Come to Jefferson?
Comedian Jerry Lewis makes unpublicized visits to medical centers while
touring the United States with "Damn Yankees."
He picked Jefferson because of his collaboration with Clifford C. Kuhn,
MD, JMC 1967 and a Philadelphia native. Dr. Kuhn is published widely and
makes numerous presentations on the topic of medicine and humor. Currently,
he and Mr. Lewis team up to make dual presentations on the topic, as they
did for Mr. Lewis's Jefferson visit. Dr. Kuhn is Professor of Psychiatry
at the University of Louisville Health Sciences Center and Medical Director
of the Genesis Center there.
The presentation at Jefferson was arranged by Jefferson's Departments of
Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Anesthesiology, and the Jefferson Pain Center.
Mitchell J. M. Cohen, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and
Human Behavior, and Director for Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine in the
Jefferson Pain Center, coordinated the program and introduced Dr. Kuhn and
Mr. Lewis. In his introduction, Dr. Cohen quoted writer Sara Davidson: "The
ability to laugh at life is right at the top, with love and communication,
in the hierarchy of our needs."
Dr. Cohen described the educational goals achieved by Mr. Lewis's visit:
- Gathering clinicians, patients, students and administrators in one
room for an intense, extended period to reflect on coping with medical adversity
- Energizing caregivers and helping them avoid demoralization in their
- Exploring mind-body interactions in chronic illness
- Focusing on humor as one tool for managing the burdens of chronic illness
as they affect healthcare professionals, patients and families