Is The Best Medicine
When Sherry Dunay Hilber left her high-profile job as one of prime-time television's top executives to pursue a philanthropic project, people laughed. But it was no joke. Now Hilber invests hundreds of hours and boundless energy into an effort that could significantly impact the way illness is treated in our society.
The project, Hilber's brainchild, is Rx Laughter, a unique five-year study currently underway at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. It looks at the potential healing effects of laughter in children suffering from life-threatening illnesses like cancer and AIDS.
Drawing on classic cartoons, films, and television programs, Hilber and UCLA scientists are trying to determine what makes healthy kids laugh. They screen video segments of the cartoons and shows for children and measure such physical responses as heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. Ultimately, the videos will be screened for ailing children to determine what effect, if any, laughter has on their immune systems and on managing pain.
The idea that happiness positively influences the mind, body, and spirit is not new. And there is research to support this notion. Earlier studies reveal that laughter, in medical students at least, can significantly alter stress hormone levels known to weaken the immune system as well as directly boost the body's natural defenses. In one small study, laughter increased the number and activity of natural killer cells-the immune system soldiers that are constantly on guard against viral and cancerous invasion.
Initially the goal of this project is to determine whether laughter can be used as a complement to traditional medical treatments to maximize healing, and to improve immune functions. Then Hilber intends to implement a comedy entertainment viewing system at UCLA and other hospitals. "The medical community is very skilled at treating illness, but it needs to focus more on how positive emotions can help," she says. "We need to find out how to use humor and laughter in combination with other medical treatments. Conceivably, we could offer a dose of a specific TV show or cartoon to ease their pain and help them heal."
Rx Laughter is, in many ways, a reflection of Sherry Hilber. For the past decade, she was a creative executive at ABC and CBS, overseeing sitcoms such as Roseanne, Home Improvement, and Cybil. But despite her career success, Hilber wanted to use her experience in comedy for a greater purpose. "I loved what I was doing, but there came a point when I knew I needed to do this," she explains.
Since leaving the world of television production two years ago, Hilber has devoted herself full-time to Rx Laughter. After piquing the interest of key researchers at UCLA, she single-handedly designed the humor intervention (the videocassettes used) by choosing, obtaining, reviewing, and selecting the segments for the research. She assembled the project's advisory board - a somewhat uncommon combination of showbiz luminaries and renowned scientists. And Hilber procured the initial funding for the study, including a $75,000 grant from the cable television channel Comedy Central channel.
"It wasn't easy to give up the stability of a dependable salary and the wonderful benefits of being with my talented colleagues in the entertainment industry on a daily basis," Hilber says, reflecting her career change. But she has no regrets. "Sometimes, in the middle of those long nights or after reading one of the many rejection letters in response to my funding requests, I wondered if I had made the right choice. But those moments were fleeting."
On many levels, show business has been an essential ingredient in Rx Laughter, and Hilber credits her career with bringing the idea to life. Learning about comedy from talented writers and producers aided her in choosing the material for the video segments. Understanding the inner workings of the entertainment world helped her know which requests were appropriate and how assertive to be. Most importantly, perhaps, Hilber learned the value of being empathic and keeping her ego at bay. "Everyone comes to a project with their own needs, point of view, and concerns, and all must be honored," she explains. "So here I am, an entertainment industry person who brings this project to the medical world. I had to show them I could see their point of view and understand their world and culture and work within it."
This unusual partnership of the entertainment world and the medical community is one of the many things that sets Rx Laughter apart from other studies. Hilber, along with medical researchers Margaret L Stuber, M.D., and Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., describe it as a cross-cultural experience that has merges different terminology, expectations, and practices.
"When I first met Margi and Lonnie, I thought of them as scientists and was intimidated," Hilber recalls. "But as time went on, we talked about our stereotypical views of doctors and showbiz people and were able to laugh about it and grow closer....Now, we are three chicks on a mission, a united team that enjoys our differences."
It's difficult to measure the impact this project has had on her life, Hilber says. "I am proud because I have started my dream and know it is not for money but to give in the purest sense of the word."