Hospital Humor… An Interview with Sally Franz

What would you do if you suddenly became paralyzed from the waist down?  Well, if you’re Sally Franz, you write a book about the experience. I sat down with the Scrambled Leggs author to talk to her about her book and how she uses humor as means to an end. What end? Listen and find out.

Sally Franz

Highlights include:

  • What Scrambled Leggs is about (0:56)
  • What an ocean liner, ice skates and wheelchair have in common (3:45)
  • How the Greeks used humor (12:16)
  • Humor for pain management (16:30)
  • A list of things you love (20:27)
  • Choosing what makes you happy (23:47)

For more, check out:

Hospital Humor from Scrambled Leggs Transcript

Welcome everyone to today’s episode of Humor Talks, where I talk with some of the thought leaders of humor in life and in the workplace.  Today we are talking with Sally Franz, author of the Best Seller Scrambled Leggs: A Snarky Tale of Hospital Hooey.  Thank you for joining us Sally.

Oh Drew it is really my pleasure.  I really admire your work.  I can’t think of anything we need more than humor in the workplace.

Thank you.  I have certainly been trying to do that, and that’s what initially caught my eye about your book, reading the description of it.  The book doesn’t necessarily apply to the workplace but it applies to life in general.

Why don’t you tell us what Scrambled Leggs is all about?

Well about 5 years ago I was skiing, on a retreat with a bunch of kids and within a half-an-hour, I was paralyzed from the waist down.  Oops, didn’t see that in the day planner.

I got dragged around to various hospitals and then air-lifted home, which cost $15,000.  And did you know, when you pay $15,000 for a one-way airline ticket, you don’t have to put the tray table up on landing?  That’s pretty cool.

Anyway, that’s where the story starts.  But then I found out that getting paralyzed was just the beginning of my problems.  The real issue was that hospital staffing has not changed in the 30 years since I had my kids–it was top-down management and the mentality from the staff was “You’re stupid, we’ll tell you what to do.”  It was a nightmare; I couldn’t believe it.  I was powerless and didn’t know what to do because people weren’t listening to me.

So I did what any good stand-up comic does: I started to take really good notes.  The only tricky part was hiding my notes so the nurses didn’t smother me with pillows, but other than that…

I spent about a year in rehab learning how to walk again and I just took copious notes.

So Scrambled Leggs is a book about that experience of going from one moment skiing on a mountain to the next moment not being able to move your legs, and the journey that takes place after that–the emotional roller coaster as well as the thoughts you had in that moment.

You know in the 60’s there was a book called Black Like Me. I thought maybe I should have titled this Gimp Like Me because for a very short period of my life I got to find out what it was like to be in a wheelchair and be treated like an idiot.

I say on the back of the book, “If you wonder how to treat someone in a wheelchair, assume they are smarter than you are and you’ll probably be right.”  There’s only a small minority of people in wheelchairs who are also retarded.  It’s not the same thing.

When you are in a chair, everyone around you is stupid, they don’t know what to do.  It’s simple, just talk to the person in front of you.  But people don’t do that.  You go out to dinner with friends and the waiter asks your friend what you want when I’m sitting right there.

The other thing I learned was that prior to being in a wheelchair, I wasn’t thinking much about being in a wheelchair.  I watched the wheelchair Olympics once but that was about it.

Here’s a question, what does an ocean liner, ice skates and a wheelchair in common?  Give up?  No brakes!

No brakes.  They do have these paddle things on the wheels that are just stabilizers so the wheels don’t turn when you’re parked, but they don’t have brakes.  So if you’re going up a ramp and half-way up you get tired, too bad, keep pushing, because you’ll go backwards like a Mel Brooks scene if you let go.

It’s the small things you don’t think about a lot of the time, the things that we take for granted.

And that’s one of the great things about your book–it gives insight into that.  It tells the story from the perspective of someone who is in a wheelchair that is very conscious and aware of those difficulties.  And from that you share some tips for people who are caregivers to someone who is ill or injured, things to keep in mind when you go to visit this person in the hospital.

Hopefully many of us will be lucky enough to not have to experience a life-threatening injury, illness or anything that puts us in the hospital for awhile, but unfortunately it may happen to someone we know.  The tips you provide are great for people who not only are experiencing an injury or illness but also the people who are interacting with people in the hospital.

One example is if you are visiting someone who’s very ill, maybe on morphine, don’t turn on your favorite TV show.  Even if they look comatose, or are comatose, they can hear, and you don’t want to force them to listen to loud violence, like The Unit or 24.

Don’t do it.  Just go hold their on hand, rub a little lotion on it, and talk quietly.

Also don’t come in with five friends and start bragging about all the cool stuff you’ve been doing since they’ve been flat on their back.

I was never sick a day in my life. I was in the best health of my life when it happened.  I went mountain climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, and I didn’t like to visit sick people–I didn’t like the whole idea of sick.  I pretty much thought it was a mindset and you just don’t go there.  And then when it happened to me, I realized I was pretty insensitive and better pay attention here.

But I think the book is not just for sick people or people who are going to be around sick people. People who are not sick will laugh and will drop to their knees laughing because what I do is make fun of everything that got near me.

For instance there was a nutritionist who showed up and she was anorexic.  She’s teaching me about food? I don’t think so.  Then a shrink showed up and told me “You know I’m a psychiatrist but that’s just a big word.  I can be your friend.”  It’s like “Who are you? Where did you come from?”

At one point she said, “Sometimes we can be so sad we feel depressed.”  I’m like “Oh my God, it’s Shirley Temple.” And then she said.  “And if you’re really really sad, boys and girls, you might feel suicidal.  Do you feel suicidal?”  I’m thinking, I’m doing my new age thing. Suicidal? No. Homicidal is coming up though.

I think that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about the book–in each chapter you give a summary of the lessons you’ve learned from that experience, which I think is great because those lessons apply in many circumstances.

Throughout the entire thing there is also a great use of humor both in terms of style and how it’s written, and it’s a book that talks about the value of humor.

So how did you use humor through this experience and in your daily life?

I came from a family of five kids in New Jersey, so right there you’re funny or you don’t eat–you’re going to be left out or pushed out.  You have to be in the game, you have to be funny with one-liners.

It also showed me growing up that there isn’t anything that is so horrible that it can’t be funny.  We laugh at funerals–we love the people that have passed on–but we tell funny stories about them; we enjoy the essence of life. We don’t say “OK after we’ve mourned for five years, now we can talk about that funny time dad went fishing and didn’t catch anything but a cold.”

We laugh about it right away, and that’s been a valuable thing because my life has shifted and changed very quickly.  I’ve moved 32 times in 20 years–it’s been that kind of life–and you have to be able to laugh.

I have a whole chapter on laughing.  I laugh at myself when I go to have an MRI because I have several of them every year and I know people who are terrified of them.  That’s good because that means they’re not a narcissist because if you’re a narcissist and you go in there, all you think about is yourself the entire time.

When I hear that loud pinging noise I just think I’m like Jane Jetson getting my hair changed four different ways.  And while I’m at it, I’ll pretend I’m Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day getting gifts bestowed upon me, like I’ll come out being able to play the piano.

I teach people that, in your mind, you can have a whole different experience if you choose to have an imagination.

That was probably one of my favorite stories from the book, when you go through the MRI and you say “Every time this bar passes over me, I’m going to be a different person or a different character.” I think it’s hilarious to imagine you in an MRI machine being a wide variety of characters.

I like that you had a different mindset or perspective–you could be freaked out but instead you take this as an opportunity to, as you say in another part of the book, have a play date with yourself, to just enjoy the time you have and make the best of it and entertain yourself.

I have two kids and now grandkids, and anyone with kids knows there are times in your life when you go “Oh dear Lord, just five minutes to myself.”  Well there you are. You may have up to 15 minutes in there.  No distractions, no cellphones, no one saying “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”  They don’t let anyone else in, so it’s great.  It’s like a New York City apartment; it’s six feet by two feet.

I think one of the other things that’s interesting in the book is that you have a good outlook and you use humor, but you also aren’t unrealistic and saying everything is perfect, everything is great. Obviously if you could choose not to have had this happened to you, you would make that decision.  So how do you balance humor with still being realistically in touch?

The answer is that I use humor very much the way it was used with the Greeks.  I believe that sarcasm, irony, banter, satire and wit are used to point out the things that are very wrong in our society.

I actually have chosen, in my humor, stand-up and humor writing, to use humor for justice, to say “This is not OK with me.  I’m going to make a joke so that everyone laughs but then everyone is going to have to think about the topic also.”

So it’s very realistically based.  It’s important that people understand that it’s not OK with me that if you have to use a bedpan, a nurse says “I’ll be back in half-an-hour” and may or may not be.  It is not OK with me that when I’m in pain they say, “Well next shift maybe we’ll talk to someone.”  That’s 8 hours.  It’s not OK with me that it happened to me and it’s certainly not OK with me that it might happen to someone else I care about.

So it’s really about patient advocacy and upgrading our healthcare system.  If we’re going to have a huge change in our healthcare system delivery because of the new laws, we need a lot more trained people.  And the nursing and medical staff that are not full-out doctors need to be given a lot more authority to help people.

That’s actually happening, by the way. We have a whole new group of people called Patient Advocates and some of them are actually doctors, and they are saying “We have to listen to patients.”

So to me, if humor is not baked in reality it’s just silly.  The funniest stand-up comedians, such as George Carlin, were the people who talked about real things.

George Carlin is a great example of that.  Not everything he said was a direct message, but if you think of bits like “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV,” it was attacking this idea of censorship.

And maybe it was vulgar in the sense of the language being used but he was doing that to emphasize his point, use humor, and call out the absurdities of it.  That’s a great example of how humor can be used; there’s a lot of truth said in jest.

That particular piece is really deep philosophically because it’s really asking “Do words have power of us?  Do we choose that?”

Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword.  Certainly every war where genocide has been involved has this kind wipe-out ideology; the great religious wars are all ideology””it’s words.

So Carlin’s piece was deep. He was really brining us to task–is it words that are really offending us? Is it what words mean?  So you might giggle and laugh because he’s said some really foul stuff, but nothing the Wayan brothers haven’t said.

I heard him do a bit one time on the planet, “All this whining and complaining ”˜Save the planet. Save the planet.’  It’s a rock, it will be here for millions of years.  What you’re trying to save is your own sorry butt.” I fell off of the chair.  No one had ever said that before””everyone was all Green Peace and love, and no one in the audience laughed, but I was at home watching it and couldn’t get off the floor because I was laughing so hard.

So I use humor that way””to point out injustices.  It’s very reality-based.

I also use other people’s humor a lot, I’ll watch the comedy channel for hours because it helps me in my pain management.

That’s one of the points you talk about towards the end of the book.  You share great stories about the absurdities you were going through, but then towards the end, you also talk about what life is like now.

One of things you talk about is how you deal with the fact that you are still in pain at times.  You say that you create moments that are “so overwhelmingly funny that you forget that you don’t have your health.”

Right, and I will tell the people listening to this, if you have someone in your life that is disabled””I used to hate that phrase and I think I still do””if you’re not as abled as you used to be, you know someone’s that come back from the war and is missing a limb or two or a face or something, the only thing someone who is injured wants to do is blend in for five minutes.  All we want to do is forget.

We do not want to be our condition, we’re over it.  It’s hard sometimes when you’re in a lot of pain–you’re in the middle of therapy or burn-ward treatment–to forget that you are not your condition. People will give anything to just spend 10 to 15 minutes laughing or forgetting that they are injured or damaged.

In my case, I’m in pain 24/7.  If my pain is really bad, I’ll just check myself into back-to-back comedy movies at the movie theater.  And if I’m in the middle of something and really engrossed in the story, I’m good, because redirection is one of the best things you can do for pain””get your mind off of it basically.

There have been a number of times after improv or stand-up shows where I’ve talked to people who have been very appreciative for making them laugh, getting them through a rough point and allowing them to forget for a little bit.

That’s the appeal of movies–for these two hours I’m going to allow myself to escape to this other world where my bills aren’t piling up or I’m not in pain.  And certainly you want to be able to handle those things once you leave, but everyone needs a break every now and then from the this crazy, serious world that exists.

As Einstein said, the best thing you can do for creativity is to day dream.  Escapism is actually a form of Zen because you are putting your brain into a different mode other than crisis mode and stress mode.  And that’s when the body can really think and come with a plan to solve some of the problems that are back on the desk.

If you don’t do it, and you just kind of keep pushing yourself and pushing yourself, you are, as my sister and I love to say, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”   People ask what do I do all day. I say I manage the family estate, which means if I only give Visa $100 instead of $150 and I take that other $50 and I give it to the doctor so that maybe this guy won’t call me.

Everyone’s playing these games and challenges, and I was never really very good at math, so yeah, I need to go to the movies a lot.

20:18 – One of the other things I really liked about the book was the non-laughter kind of humor.  A big focus of mine is that while laughter is a huge part of humor, it’s not the only thing.

Humor can be you in an MRI machine and entertaining yourself by changing characters everytime the bar passes over you.  You’re doing some for amusement, something out of the ordinary.  And I think one of my other favorite tips you share is making a list of simple things that you love and then choosing to have at least one of them in your life every day.  Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

Well I learned this at a Tony Robbins seminar.  He said people are going to be miserable if their list for a perfect, happy day includes winning the lottery, marrying Mr. or Mrs. America, having all of the bills paid, blah blah blah.

There are a lot of people like that.  They say they will not allow themselves to have any happiness or laughter or enjoy themselves until life is perfect.   Tony said you have to have a long list of “it’s for free” things you can access, and allow yourself to happy with those few things.

For instance: going to the park, smiling at a child and having them smile back; or going to a park and throwing peanuts out and watching 5,000 pigeons come down;  or better yet, sitting at a park, throwing peanuts across to someone else’s bench and watching 5,000 pigeons come down on them.

You have to have something that is funny and fun.  I say to people, particularly moms , if you splurge and buy homemade cookies at the bakery, buy three for yourself and hide them in the car where the kids can’t find them, and actually eat them all by yourself.

Some people say “that’s ridiculous,” but for some people that’s a splurge and that’s a kindness that they can do for themselves.  I think it’s about being gentler and kinder to yourself, and letting that be fun and funny.

A lot of times it can be those small things.

I was just reading in an article today about a research study at The Ohio State University that talked about people who have depression.  They’re finding that it’s sometimes a change in thinking that’s more helpful than a change of behavior.

I think small things like that are ways of changing your thinking.  Instead of saying “For me to have a good day, I have to do X, Y, and Z””I have to wake up at the right time, work out, get at least 18 things done at work, etc etc,”  instead, for me to have happiness  all I need is to smile, see a certain color that I enjoy, walk past flowers or eat a cookie for 5 minutes by myself.  That small change in thinking can go a long way in terms of your overall attitude and health.

I really think that there is a lot of science that backs this up.  I’ve read quite a few studies myself that talk about attitude and the need for individuals to harness in the difference between reality and expectation.  Sociologists will say that if you live a life where what you expected and what you got are too far apart, there’s going to be a lot of rage and anger in your life. So what do you do?

Let’s say you wish you could afford a BMW and you can’t even afford a beat-up Jeep.   You can say to yourself, actually, I like the idea of a beat up jeep, now that I think about it.  Who told me I had to have a BMW when I’d rather be bouncing around in a jeep and be able to take it on the beach or off-track.

It’s about examining where you got these beliefs.  I have a Twitter account and Facebook group called “Sally Franz Uncorked,” and today’s message was, “I just looked up and saw I have six tubes of lipstick all different colors, that match different outfits.”

I stopped myself and thought, who told me that I had to match my lips to my clothes?  Where did that come from?  Why don’t I match my nose or my elbows to my clothes with color? Think of all the possibilities!

It’s like all of the sudden you look at how we’ve been programmed by our culture, not to mention Madison Ave, to buy things, and you are miserable.

You have to really reconstruct what you want to do and what you’re choosing to say makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself–not an easy task.

Your book is full of a number of humorous anecdotes that talk about the different stories and different situations of your experience.  Is there one in particular that you want to share with the listeners or even one that’s happened since the end of the book?  Just a humorous example of something that has happened?

Wow, there were so many things that were just ridiculous.  I think the thing that was really funny for me was looking at the distinction between what I thought would happen and what did happen.

I tell a funny story about the first time they tried to put me in a machine to help me walk (this was in the hospital before I got to rehab).  It was like a Mister Machine or a borg thing that they strapped me into, with wheels and gears, and dragged me around the four corners of the building, back to my room, and they were dragging my toes.

They kept saying in the beginning “You can do it, you can do it.  That a girl. Good job.”  Which is what you tell a 2 year old when you’re trying to potty train her.  As I got around the last wing, heading towards my room, it was more like “Well you seem a little tired.  Maybe we’ll try this again next time when you’re not so tired.”

It was like “Whoa, how did this somehow become my fault, I’m the one that’s paralyzed.  You’re the one that’s been dragging me around.  My toes feel like they’ve been dragged on industrial carpet and Emory boards for the last half hour. “  I was like “Um, when do I get to vote?  When did I give up my vote? I want to vote on how I get treated and how I get talked to.”

Sharing these stories is my way of trying to make fun of a really horrific situation.  People just walk into a room, hoist you on a machine, drag you around, and then at the end of the day it’s your fault since it didn’t work.  That’s when I’m like, whoa, get me out of here.  One of my chapters is called “Vote Me Off the Island, Please. “

People who are going through a horrible time can read this book.  Even if that horrible time isn’t about  illness, I promise you you’ll begin to get a sense of how you can laugh at yourself and the situation.  And tell the truth at the same time.

Awesome.  You can find the book scrambled legs on as well as your site  You have a Twitter account and a Facebook page as well.  Anything else you’d like to make sure listeners are aware of?

Yeah I would love to have people go to my site or you can go to Amazon and leave a review.  You can also reach me at sallyfranz on Facebook.  I would love to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about this.

And I certainly appreciate you talking to me, Drew, this was really fun. Thanks!

It was a blast for me as well.  Thank you very much for joining us Sally and have a great rest of the day.

Great, you too!

That concludes the interview.  For more, you can listen to the audio on Sally’s interview or check out her book.

Note: This is the fourth Humor Talks interview, a series with some of today’s thought leaders on the topic of humor in the workplace.  You can sign-up for the Humor Newsletter to stay up-to-date with new interviews.


what is your humor persona?

Humor is a skill that can be learned. And when used correctly, it is a superpower that can be your greatest asset for building a happier, healthier and more productive life.  See for yourself...

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