The Laughter Vaccine standup show was held August 18.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a hard time for everyone, but some have it worse than others. Cathleen Semmens, an ICU charge nurse with Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, falls into the latter camp.
Though she’s treated all sorts of illnesses and injuries in the 10 years she’s worked in the ICU, she’s never experienced anything quite like COVID-19. The constant influx of new patients into her care and their high rate of infection has forced Semmens and other staff to care for patients in groups at set times before leaving the area as soon as possible. It’s efficient, and necessary, but there’s an isolation and lack of human connection with patients that Semmens regrets.
“The hardest part is not having the families here,” she said. “It matters when people are able to be here and can spend time with (patients),” she said. “It’s scary being in the hospital, let alone what we’re seeing with (COVID-19).”
Her work has become a routine of responding to suffering patients, following steps to decontaminate so she doesn’t bring sickness home, and speaking with other nurses for support.
But for one day at work, with the help of two Sarasota comedians putting on a stand-up show at the hospital, Semmens was able to sit back and laugh.
Comedians Les McCurdy and Al Ernst put on a stand-up comedy show for health workers at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota on Aug. 18. The day's three “Laughter Vaccine” shows had McCurdy and Ernst delivering 15-minute routines for health workers on their lunch and dinner breaks.
The owner of McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre thought the shows would be a good way to distract health workers from the emotional turmoil of the last few months.
"They are probably most likely thinking about something that is not a happy thought (during their break)," McCurdy said. They're probably thinking about something that just happened ... or the family that they're missing."
It didn’t hurt that since the pandemic started, McCurdy’s hasn’t had much in the way of live entertainment. He partnered with fellow comedian Al Ernst and the duo each delivered a short stand-up routine to workers inside a spaced-out break room with food by provided by Bonefish Grill.
Though Ernst and McCurdy have decades of stand-up comedy experience put together, neither had ever performed at a medical building for workers. Ernst has performed at tailgates, golf events, baseball stadiums and more — but he says standing at a distance performing with a mask was particularly tricky. There's a certain rhythm at comedy shows that Ernst likes to tap into that wasn't available with an audience just on their lunch break.
"(The mask) in and of itself is the toughest thing to do," he said. " I did 15 minutes three times yesterday. Between that and being the fat guy and having to wear the mask all day long, I was exhausted when I got off."
The Laughter Vaccine show was somewhat personal for Ernst— his mother was one of the first nurses with Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. He remembers her treating patients through thick and thin, but coming home stressed and needing to talk through it with friends and family. Ernst wanted to be able to take away some of that stress for nurses today, if just through his comedy.
“This was a little more from the heart,” Ernst said. “You really want to be on your game.”
McCurdy has already released virtual shows with the theater during the down time, but the duo would like nothing more than to take their show on the road and perform at other local hospitals. McCurdy figures as the pandemic progresses, the need for distraction and entertainment for health care workers will only grow.
“That's what stand up comedy club is for,” McCurdy said. “It’s for you to be able to come in and destress, it's a mental vacation ... Once that show starts, you don't think about anything but what the comics talking about. And when you leave, you feel better than when you walked in.”