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Gallows Humor


Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett once wrote, "If I couldn't laugh, I would just go insane." You have to have a sense of humor to survive in EMS. Having a good sense of humor is an important coping skill for people who frequently deal with stress and carnage, such as we do in EMS. The use of humor in these situations is often called "gallows humor" and is defined as humor that arises from stressful, traumatic or life-threatening situations. A recent study found that 95% of EMS providers use gallows humor as a coping mechanism. The remaining 5% are liars. (OK, I'm lying -- just a bit of humor in this column on humor).

Gallows humor is part and parcel of EMS. It's often politically incorrect and sometimes not understood by people outside the profession. One of the most popular talks I give (usually at EMS banquets where people are adequately lubricated with distilled spirits) is a talk on "Southern Medical Terminology." Interestingly, the EMS people in the audience laugh uncontrollably while their non-EMS friends and family sit next to them with a puzzled look on their face. I love gallows humor -- it is what it is.

I have been and always will be a prankster. The more complicated the prank, the better. One time in medical school I took home a whole human skeleton, put it in the closet and tied a string to the arm so that it would rise up when the door was opened. I tried for hours to coerce my wife to go to the closet to get something. She never did, and I forgot about the prank. Later in the evening, I hear a scream and a clunk. At first, I wondered what happened. Then, I realized my wife had found the skeleton. I thought, "Holy crap ... she fainted."

I ran into the bedroom, whereupon she met me with a size 11 cowboy boot and proceeded to chase me around the house. It was great. The poor woman never knows when I'm up to something. The same thing holds true at the hospital -- when appropriate.

But I love humor that's intellectual and well planned. In this day and age, especially with younger EMS people, the medium of choice for gallows humor is video. Some of these guys are doing incredible videos. One such video that recently circulated widely on YouTube was called "Somebody Didn't Like Trauma." It was a critical yet humorous parody, based on the movieDer Untergang, of the NBC show "Trauma." It was produced by a paramedic student in Los Angeles and truly ingenious. The language is a little blue -- but that's common with gallows humor.

Speaking of videos, I recently attended the Christmas party of a Las Vegas ambulance operation. During the course of the party, they showed a video that was done by a local group of paramedics. It was hilarious. It turns out it was part of an ongoing series called "The Paramedic Chronicles"that is circulating on YouTube. The videos are professionally shot and edited by three Las Vegas paramedics who formed KTF Media Productions.They're actually pretty good actors, and the scripts are well written, too. They have some recurring characters, and the series is one of the funniest things I've seen in some time. One such character is Wanda-- the abusive hypochondriac. Another is Uncle Willie-- the nursing home patient and frequent flyer. A third is Charlie-- the chronic inebriate. And there are others. Tune in and enjoy. If you've been in EMS for a while, you'll recognize the characters. The names and faces will be different -- but the scenarios are the same.

Each of us has our own way of coping with the trials and tribulations of EMS. Gallows humor is the coping measure de jour of many. I think Mark Twain summed up gallows humor quite well when he wrote, "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place." Right on, Mr. Twain!


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