Gallows Humor in Medicine

Katie Watson

Disclosures

The Hastings Center Report. 2011;41(5):37-45. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Introduction

It was 3:00 am and three tired emergency room residents were wondering why the pizza they'd ordered hadn't come yet. A nurse interrupted their pizza complaints with a shout: "GSW Trauma One—no pulse, no blood pressure."
The residents rushed to meet the gurney and immediately recognized the unconscious shooting victim: he was the teenage delivery boy from their favorite all-night restaurant, and he'd been mugged bringing their dinner.
That made them work even harder. A surgeon cracked the kid's rib cage and exposed his heart, but the bullet had torn it open and they couldn't even stabilize him for the OR. After forty minutes of resuscitation they called it: time of death, 4:00 a.m.
The young doctors shuffled into the temporarily empty waiting area. They sat in silence. Then David said what all three were thinking.
"What happened to our pizza?"
Joe found their pizza box where the delivery boy dropped it before he ran from his attackers. It was face up, a few steps away from the ER's sliding doors. Joe set it on the table. They stared at it. Then one of the residents made a joke.
"How much you think we ought to tip him?"
The residents laughed. Then they ate the pizza.

David told me this story fifteen years after he finished his residency, but the urgency with which he told it made it seem like it happened last night. "You're the ethicist," he said. "Was it wrong to make a joke?"

Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well. There is a fair amount of literature on humor in medicine generally, most of which is focused on humor in clinician-patient interactions or humor's benefit to patients.[1] There is relatively little specifically addressing the topic of this article: gallows humor in medicine, which usually occurs in interactions between health care providers.

Gallows humor is not a feel-good, Patch Adams kind of humor, but it is not synonymous with all cruel humor, either. As one physician put it, the difference between gallows humor and derogatory humor is like "the difference between whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones."[2] Many health care providers witness or participate in gallows humor at some point. After reviewing over forty medical memoirs, Suzanne Poirier reports that "Anger and gallows humor are generally accepted forms of expression among undergraduate and graduate medical students … but expressions of serious self-doubt or grief are usually kept private or shared with only a trusted few."[3]

David's question intrigued me as a bioethicist because it is about moral distress, power imbalances between doctors and patients, and good people making surprising choices. But it also piqued my interest as someone who enjoys joking around—when not teaching bioethics, I teach improv and sketch writing at Second City, where I'm an adjunct faculty member. But David didn't ask me if the tip joke was funny. He asked about it in ethics' normative terms of right and wrong.

In this article, I consider whether some joking between medical professionals is actually unethical. The claim that being a physician is so difficult that "anything goes" backstage misuses the concept of coping as cover for cruelty, or as an excuse for not addressing maladaptive responses to pain. However, blanket dismissals of gallows humor as unprofessional misunderstand or undervalue the psychological, social, cognitive, and linguistic ways that joking and laughing work. Physicians deserve a more nuanced analysis of intent and impact in discussions of when gallows humor should be discouraged or condemned in the medical workplace. They also deserve deeper consideration of physician health than the professionalism lens might provide. Surely we can advocate for the humanity of patients without denying the humanity of those who treat them.

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