imageIf laughter is the best medicine, Joan Rivers earned an MD in my personal health ecosystem. My parents loved and laughed with her comedy when pioneered stand-up comedy on TV, and I became increasingly intrigued in and impressed by her vitality, her tenacity, and her survival strategies. I also shared a love of her bee pins with my mother-in-law; the pins were created by Joan and her team for QVC, the electronic retailer, with whom Joan forged a profitable and popular line of fashion, jewelry and home decor.

The bee, Joan explained, is anatomically and aerodynamically unfit to fly. Yet, the creature does.

The bee is a miraculous being. And Joan lived that way, with such a strong will, combating adversity, overcoming her husband’s suicide with grace and humor, and very hard work. She gave generously (and quietly, humbly) to a broad range of health and social causes, and was an early supporter of and worker for Gods Love We Deliver, the food-delivery service launched in New York City in the first generation of AIDS.

The documentary A Piece of Work provides a 360-degree view of Joan and moved me when I saw it two years ago. I recommend you stream it, rent it, watch it, and experience the resilience and half-full-glass energy of this remarkable woman. Here is Roger Ebert’s review of the film.

As Melissa Rivers, Joan’s sole surviving daughter, wrote in her press release announcing her mother’s death, “My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be to return to laughing soon.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  Laughter is in fact therapeutic. Some physicians and researchers believe that the act of laughter can have the effect of exercise, stretching muscles in the face and body, raising blood pressure, heart rate and pulse, and sending more oxygen to our tissues. Laughing can also help with sleep.

Another Joan-lesson is her commitment to looking good – at every age. You might disagree with her own approach to plastic surgery, but the reality is that most people incorporate how they feel about their physical appearance into their overall feeling of health and wellbeing (which we learned in the 2008 Edelman Health Barometer survey). The Look Good Feel Better Program launched 25 years ago with the American Cancer Society, connecting these dots.

On a more sobering note, the New York State Health Department has initiated an investigation of the private clinic with Joan was undergoing throat surgery. With Joan vibrant and working until the day before the surgery, without any obvious medical issues, it is possible a medical error was involved in her procedure.

This untimely death should remind us that some 400,000 patients die from medical errors every year in the U.S. At least two people in my close-in circle have been victims. Patient safety continues to be a black mark on the U.S. health system. While there are risks involved in all procedures, it is crucial for patients and their families, friends, and advocates to be mindful and educated about patient safety, and press on, nationally and locally, for more effective and patient-centered policies and procedures in health provider settings — inpatient and outpatient alike.

Dr. Bill Crounse of Microsoft wrote beautifully about this yesterday in his Health Blog, linked here.