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Finding humor in the hospital

One doctor's key mechanism for coping with stress

December 2015

Published in the December 2015 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

LEO J. MOTTER, MD, AND COMICS GO WAY BACK. In high school, Dr. Motter loved The Far Side and Dilbert. Now, he and his 15-year-old son enjoy a Web-based comic series called xkcd by Randall Munroe, a former NASA scientist.

But Dr. Motter, a member of WellSpan Hospitalists who works at York Hospital in York, Pa., never tried his hand at actually creating comics, until now.

The idea behind “Mystical Convergence” will be familiar to every hospitalist. 
”As hospitalists, we’re held accountable for length of stay,” he points out. “But I always have this feeling, ‘Do they actually know how little control we have over this?’ A million factors have to come together to get the patient out of the hospital, and any one of them can bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.” When it does all come together, he adds, “it’s like magic.”

While Dr. Motter came up with the concept and text, the drawing is by Daniel Langsdale, a friend and graphic artist in Alexandria, Va. The two met at the University of Maryland, where Dr. Motter attended medical school and followed his friend’s comics in a university publication. When he began coming up with ideas for hospitalist comics, “I thought of Daniel and called to see if he was interested.”

Dr. Motter says he routinely takes frustrating aspects of his job and filters them through humor.
 “I’m the guy who, when I’m entering notes in a really slow computer, will turn to someone and say, ‘Man, I wish this computer was a lot slower because I’m getting way too much work done,’ ” he says. “My favorite way to complain is to make it a joke. Otherwise, complaining just drags everybody down.”

He finds in hospital medicine a good balance between “high-adrenaline moments that are life and death and human moments where you’re interacting with families.”

But in his mind, humor in the hospital is essential. “We have a really stressful job,” Dr. Motter points out. Humor not only helps clinicians cope with stress psychologically, but it also acts as a kind of reset button for physicians’ thinking.

“Unrelieved stress starts interfering with your thought process,” says Dr. Motter, “and you start making bad decisions. If you just step back for 10 seconds and have a humorous conversation with one of your partners and laugh for a minute, suddenly your brain relaxes and you start thinking clearly again. I see it all the time: Humor in the ED actually saves people’s lives.”