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Suzanne Travis R.N.

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Suzanne Travis, Registered Nurse, Clinical Nurse II, UCLA Medical Center, Santa MonicaSuzanne Travis, Registered Nurse, Clinical Nurse II, UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica

Healing with Humor

Travis is an oncology nurse and a stand-up comedienne who uses humor to connect with patients. She has worked at UCLA for a total of 18 years - first as a nurse in the oncology unit at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, then as a UCLA Home Health nurse and, for the past four years, as an oncology nurse at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.

How did you become interested in stand-up comedy?
Back in the early 1990s, when I was a home health nurse for AIDS patients, I had a patient who was very funny and who at the end of his life was at home still making jokes when he knew he was dying. At the exact same time, I had another patient who was a professional comic who used to listen to me make jokes about being single and being a nurse and he said, "You really should perform comedy because you're so funny." He encouraged me to take a class at UCLA Extension and I loved it. I started performing and soon the University Hilton gave a friend and me a space to perform on Friday and Saturday nights. We called it Club 555 and would sell tickets and donate the money we earned. Over the years, I've performed in countless clubs and have hosted about a dozen comedy fundraisers.

How do you make your patients laugh?
If a patient tells me he's depressed or sick of being at the hospital, I might say, "Well, if you weren't depressed, you'd be nuts!" A comment like that will make the patient laugh and think, "Thank God, it's a normal reaction to being in this hospital." It just erases the anxiety. If a patient has been with us for a long time and is finally getting to go home, I might say, "Are you sad about going home today? Do you want me to keep you a little longer?" Humor humanizes patients and elevates them out of the patient role where their identity may be lost. Laughter also equalizes the relationship between nurse and patient.

What do you like about being an oncology nurse?
I believe those who choose this profession have a calling. I feel I do. Also, you see so many inspirational things in the face of all the sadness - like the 22-year-old patient I just had who would wear a rainbow-colored clown wig and walk around the station making jokes with everybody. There's a lot of authenticity when people are faced with very serious illnesses. Everybody becomes very close, very quickly. It's extremely gratifying.

Has being an oncology nurse changed you in any way?
It has changed my worldview in that I don't think we have control over certain things. And when something comes out of left field - like a perfectly healthy young person has a shoulder ache and then finds out he has a catastrophic illness that changes his whole life - you learn not to sweat the small stuff and to really cherish the right now.

What's the hardest part of the job?
Because I'm a mother, my biggest challenge is dealing with other young mothers who are very sick. They might ask me how my daughter is doing in high school, knowing they might not live to see their own child in high school is very poignant. Sometimes I cry with my patients. I'm not afraid to be with them in that moment of sadness. It's also hard when you get close to someone who has been coming in for maybe a year and who suddenly starts going downhill. It can be very hard, but that's where the humor comes in. At the end of an intense day, if I personally didn't have humor or the ability to poke fun at my own self, I wouldn't last.

What are your other interests?
I love to write and have an article called "Laughter and Healing" in the first issue of 4Southwest Pulse, a new quarterly newsletter created for and by the nursing staff. I know this sounds so cliché but I'm also writing a screenplay with a friend. And I love to paint. I helped paint a mural of an ocean scene in the phlebotomy area of the 200 UCLA Medical Plaza building and am hoping to paint a mural for our floor here at Santa Monica.