Worlds Best Doctor essayist excises humor from pain

Admittedly, illness isn't very funny.

But "there are painful aspects of medicine that lend themselves to humor," said Dr. Arlan Cohn, aka Oscar London, M.D., W.B.D.

London is the pseudonym of the El Cerrito internist, whose fourth book of humorous essays has just been published, "From Voodoo to Viagra — The Magic of Medicine: 37 Uplifting Essays from a Doctor's Bag of Tricks."

W.B.D. has appeared after the M.D. in his byline, ever since he wrote his first book, "Kill As Few Patients as Possible — and 56 Other Essays on How to Be the World's Best Doctor." The initials stand for — what else? World's Best Doctor.

Cohn, 70, has been practicing medicine for 40 years, and writing for even longer. He began by penning humorous essays for his high school newspaper in St. Louis.

He took the pen name because when he first began writing, he felt having a less ethnic-sounding name would increase his odds of getting published.

"I did it to avoid being stereotyped as a Jewish humorist, so I chose a non-ethnic name."

He believes his sense of humor comes from his mother, who was well-known in certain circles: She was a stand-up comedian who performed Yiddish monologues at B'nai B'rith conventions.

But of course, it goes back even further still, he believes. "In all these millennia of being oppressed, a sense of humor has evolved among the Jews that has helped them survive," he said.

Citing Mel Brooks as one of his heroes, Cohn said he thought Brooks' recent success in "The Producers" on Broadway was "one of the most gratifying stories. I just love that man and his craziness."

A constant refrain of Cohn's for those who aspire to be a W.B.D. like him is, "Be Jewish."

While his essays have little Jewish content as a whole, Cohn says his sense of humor is definitely Jewish. In one essay, "The Laughter of an Audience is My Best Medicine," Cohn tells about how he gave a talk to a group of gynecologists, including some visiting Chinese doctors, with limited English.

"Separated only by language, I discovered that Chinese and Jewish physicians actually have much in common: We both grew up in a culture obsessed with family, education and Chinese food. (On the other hand, we will never see eye-to-eye on the relative merits of ginseng and chicken soup)."

In 40 years of practice, Cohn has found humor in almost every aspect of the profession, especially in the world of HMOs.

"Nothing is more painful than the private practice of medicine in the world of HMOs," he said.

He and his colleagues now work in a kind of "Kafka-esque setting, where doctors have to pretend to be humanistic while they're oppressed by this bureaucracy and have to fight not to reveal their misery to their patients."

The title of the book, "From Voodoo to Viagra," is symbolic of the doctor's distrustof alternative medicine.

Sometimes, an alternative-medicine practitioner can have such a charismatic personality, he said, that that alone is enough to persuade patients of the validity of the treatment.

Any doctor who practices in California, he said, is used to those patients who believe whatever their alternative-medicine practitioner has told them is superior information.

"Alternative therapists are absolutely sure of their methods, where a doctor has a talmudic skepticism about his or her methods," he said.

Patients often prefer homeopathic cures, and refuse traditional medicines, which often can work like magic, he said.

This magic has allowed people with AIDS to now live normal lives, he said. A pill can cure certain types of leukemia. And Viagra "is a magic drug for an old guy who has trouble with his sex function."

So does the good doctor/ author then believe in the old adage "laughter is the best medicine?"

Of course.

In addition to laughter having the power to lower blood pressure, improve digestion and help insomnia, "you can't be in pain and laugh at the same time unless you laugh so hard it hurts," Cohn said. "For relief of pain, there is no pill that can compete with laughter."

Cohn's essays are often based on experiences he has had, and some patients are composites of those he has seen. Then again, some essays are completely fictitious, although like the example below, sound as though they could true.

In an essay titled "The Seven Habits of Highly Obnoxious Patients," he writes about one, whom he calls "Jack Nazdak," who waves the doctor out of the room when he enters, as he is talking on his cellular phone and it's a personal matter. Ten minutes later, Nazdak hasn't hung up. So the doctor calls him from his office outside, and is promptly put on hold.

Cohn envisions Nazdak having to have a Nokia excised from his scalp.

"A common cause of death is anoxia, or lack of oxygen," Cohn writes. "This is my first case of anokia. Remember, you read it here first."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."