By Gary White
The first indication that this won’t be a typical medical program comes when a freckle-faced boy with dramatically red hair taps a newcomer on each shoulder with a peacock feather.
“I knight you a giggling person,” Zec Jones says.
An audience of nine assembles in the small room, and the evening’s leader — a middle-aged woman in purple pants, an aqua top and a green-and-blue scarf – gets their attention with a highpitched yodel.
Before long, the room bubbles with sound: “Heeheehee. Huhhuh-huh. Hohoho.”
A hospital might seem the last place anyone would visit in search of a chuckle, snicker or guffaw.
But one evening a month, in a windowless room in the basement of Winter Haven Hospital, Valla Dana Fotiades presides over a meeting devoted to one purpose — getting people to laugh.
The “laughter circle” is part of the hospital’s Sage-ing Program, which includes classes geared toward promoting emotional health.
Chuck Warren, coordinator of the Sage-ing program, says he knows of no other hospital in Florida that conducts a laughter circle, though he says Lakeland Regional Medical Center and Lake Wales Medical Center have shown interest in adding programs.
Fotiades, 52, a former professional speaker, became intrigued by the beneficial qualities of laughter after learning of the World Laughter Tour, an organization that claims it has sparked hundreds of “laughter clubs.”
Fotiades attended a two-day training session in 2003 to become a certified laughter leader — or, as she puts it, “a funshine spreader.”
NOT A COMEDY CLUB
Anyone who attends the laughter circle hoping to see a standup comedy routine will be disappointed. Fotiades is not a natural joke teller; the laughter circle concept eschews jokes as too subjective.
Rather than gamble on the vagaries of humor, Fotiades takes an approach summed up in the phrase “fake it till you make it.”
As an opening exercise, the participants — mostly women and many of them senior citizens — exchange hand slaps and say, “Aloha-hahahaha.” Fotiades introduces the transitional laugh that will recur throughout the session (“Ho, ho, hahaha, yaaaaa-hoo!”) and then moves on to the roller-coaster laugh. The participants lift their arms and utter “ooooooooh,” as if surging upward, and then drop their arms and wail “wahahaha” as if plummeting down.
The exercise may be contrived, but it produces mirthful expressions and genuine laughs.
One who appears particularly tickled is Auburndale’s Shannon Mason, a tall woman with sparkling eyes. Mason, 52 and a regular at the sessions, gleefully throws herself into the increasingly silly exercises that follow.
She has noticed a pattern in the way newcomers respond to the sessions.
“I’ve seen them reticent, somebody you might think of as quiet natured, and by the time they’ve bonded with the rest of us pseudo-lunatic they’re part of a group,” Mason says afterward. “By the end, their eyes are sparkling, and they’re smiling ear to ear.”
The session shifts into high gear and follows a general format: One participant tosses a stuffed blue hippo to another, who chooses one of several exercises on handwritten notes Fotiades has tacked up on the wall.
During the monkey laugh, 10year-old Zec and gray-haired women alike frolic in a bunch, mimicking underarm scratches and chortling in simian fashion. For the penguin, Fotiades leads a bumbling parade of Chaplinesque waddling, as participants hold their arms stiffly at their sides. The circle feeds upon its own silliness, and mannered hooting quickly gives way to spontaneous laughter.
“If you try to do this out in public, people would wonder about us even more than they do hearing it through the walls,” Fotiades says.
LAUGHTER AS THERAPY
One of the older women is breathing hard as the visitors take their seats for a break, and Fotiades says laughter provides not only emotional stimulation but also a physical workout.
Cards placed on the chairs by Fotiades extol the benefits of laughter as a painkiller more powerful than morphine. Young children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, Fotiades says, while adults on average laugh only 15 to 17 times a day.
She mentions Norman Cousins, author of the 1979 book “Anatomy of an Illness,” in which he claimed that laughter therapy helped him overcome ankylosing spondylitis, a rheumatic disease.
The same illness struck Fotiades’s husband, John, who died in 2000. Further trauma emerged three years later when her daughter, Dana, then 16 and a promising athlete, suffered disabling injuries in a boating accident.
Serious concerns bring others to the laughter circle as well.
One man attending the recent meeting has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Doris Booth, a retiree from Winter Haven, says she has been plagued by anxiety throughout her life. In addition, she’s coping with the death last December of her best friend, Alberta Mattes, and says, “I miss her terribly.”
Having learned about the laughter circle through a mailing from Winter Haven Hospital, she makes her first appearance at the recent meeting. Afterward, she says she plans to return.
“I knew it would be kind of silly, but you just have to overlook that part because the people there are friendly, and you just have to let yourself get into it no matter what,” Booth says. “(Fotiades) is very enthusiastic, and her face always looks like she’s lit up.”
Shannon Mason has two medical conditions — peripheral neuropathy and fibromyalgia — that cause her chronic pain, and she says the laughter circle brings relief.
Zec, the only youth present, hopes the circle will help him deal with an attention-deficit disorder.
Fotiades says laughter is not a way of ignoring or glossing over life’s difficulties.
“It’s not like putting rose-colored glasses on but being a realist to say, `How do you get through those things and how do you nurture healing?”‘ Fotiades says. “Laughter is something written about in the Bible. It’s been around forever. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s just something that makes people want to be around you.”
The exercises resume with the “double milkshake,” and everyone mimics pouring from one tumbler into another and then drinking. Next comes “hot sand across the circle.” The participants embrace the premise, mincing around on their toes and bumping together as the room becomes a gentle mosh pit amid a soundtrack of laughter.
A paired exercise involves a pantomime of a cell-phone call, with the caller laughing as soon as the partner answers. Fotiades says she practices this one in real life with a group of friends.
“The only problem is if the person you’re calling doesn’t answer the phone,” she says.
A reprise of the monkey laugh gets so rambunctious that someone loses an earring.
The meeting that began with knighting by peacock feather closes with everyone present standing to recite in unison: “We are the healthiest people in the world. We are the happiest people in the world. We love to laugh.”
Source: TheLedger.com. Copyright 2004 The Ledger