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Laugh a little, learn a lot: Nurse mixes humor into healthcare talk

Monday November 5, 2012
Maureen Sullivan, RN
Maureen Sullivan, RN
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On World Diabetes Day, Nov. 14, a woman will deliver a message based on the old adage, "Laughter is the best medicine." Maureen Sullivan, RN, BSN, CEN, CDE, a Florida-based nurse who married her love of comedy with her passion for education, will present a continuing education course on diabetes followed by her comedy show at Coconuts Comedy Club at Jackís Joint in Clearwater. "Iím sure Michelle Obama will be calling me soon, and Iím still waiting on Oprah to call about my book," Sullivan said, unable to refrain from jesting.

Always armed with one-liners, Sullivan said she has been funny all her life, although her kindergarten teacher said she talked too much. Now she gets paid for mixing humor into her talks on healthcare topics. "Iíve seen over the years that laughter can really break down barriers," she said.

A nurse for 30 years, Sullivan began as a nursing assistant at age 16. Currently an independent contractor, she works for Liberty Medical Supply in Port St. Lucie as a certified diabetes educator. Six years ago, she added comedy to her repertoire.

She has performed stand-up comedy routines in Las Vegas, was keynote speaker for the Floridaís 2008 Nurse.com Nursing Excellence Awards ceremony, and that same year she spoke at Nurse.comís Career Fair in Tampa on the need for humor in healthcare. In addition to publishing a book, writing articles and hosting a radio show, sheís a public speaker for medical corporations nationwide.

"My audience is 9 a.m. business suits who wouldnít think of heckling me," Sullivan said, adding itís a strange departure from late-night comedy club gigs. "Iíve been told Iím too clean and too intellectual for the comedy world."

Highlighting with humor

Observational humor, Sullivanís unique brand of wit, boldly calls out healthcare problems most people wonít address. Sheíll comment on how patients with diabetes log several weeks of blood sugar levels at once because theyíve forgotten to record them daily, and how physicians are aware of the problem because the ink is still wet and numbers are normal. "Donít fill in the numbers while youíre in the waiting room," she tells patients in the audience. "And doctors: How about looking at those numbers?"

On both counts, she receives laughs and standing ovations.

Sullivanís passion for diabetes education stems from a past job as stroke program manager at HCA Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. She knew stroke patients commonly present with diabetes, so she hypothesized that if diabetes education improved, the number of stroke patients might be reduced. This compelled her to earn 1,000 teaching hours as a diabetes educator to earn certification in 2011.

Sullivanís first comedic/medical presentation was in 2008 at the American Heart Associationís national conference in Mississippi. "They wanted a lighthearted approach to some serious topics," she said.

That led to many more bookings, and soon Sullivan was lightheartedly lecturing audiences ranging from nursing students to neurologists. She also has corporate presentations for the American Diabetes Association and American Cancer Society under her belt.

Broadcasts and books

Reaching a larger audience has been Sullivanís goal from the start. From January through August of this year, she hosted the Health and Humor Hour at HealthInfoRadio.com. The live shows blended comedy with healthcare topics. On the show, she interviewed guests from Tobacco Free Florida, the National Diabetes Education Program and National Institutes of Health, and the Alzheimerís Family Organization. Past shows are archived on UStream.com.

Her shows began with 300 hits and climbed toward 800. The most popular topic, a diabetes showcase in March, received 17,630 views. "We had an interview with Dr. John Buse, the national diabetes education program chair," she said. "We also had an in-studio guest with type 2 diabetes who spoke of his recent diagnosis and the difficulties he faced with diet, exercise, weight loss and glucose testing."

Sullivan works to address listenersí concerns. One issue that arose because of the recent outbreak of fungal meningitis is patient safety. "Theyíre saying, 'I need, as a patient, to trust the care that Iím getting,í" she said.

In October, she launched a new health and humor show which airs live at 6:30 p.m. EST Mondays on UStream.tv/channel/the-health-and-humor-show. Her husband, Mike Tevault, also a nurse, helps with engineering and maintaining her website, MaureenSullivanRN.com. Visitors can request a speaking engagement or purchase her independently published book released in July. "Never Again! From horror to humor, my life as a nurse" is an 80-page account of true stories Sullivan jokes are "HIPAA compliant."

"It gives insight into the humorous and almost horrific stuff that nurses see every day," she said.

She has sold 200 copies so far, and is working on a second book. For the future, Sullivan will continue to focus on diabetes awareness. "Itís the big epidemic issue on everybodyís health plate," she said. Plus, she joked, "that will get Michelle Obama to call me."

Stefanie DellíAringa is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email editorSouth@nurse.com.