Humorous Healing | The Annex Gleaner

When you’re 29 years old, newly married, and suddenly diagnosed with an incurable disease, it’s hard to find things to laugh about.

That’s what happened to Zal Press more than 30 years ago. After he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, friends and family started treating him differently. When they were around him, they were around him, they were all deeply concerned and they could never act casually. He was no longer a ‘person’; he became a ‘patient,’

Like most patients, he just did whatever the doctor told him, hoping the problem would be solved. “Just give me a pill so I can get on with my life,” said Press, reflecting on how he felt back then.

But after obeying doctors’ orders and being compliant for so long, Press stopped being passive. He began asking questions, he started looking Crohn’s Disease critically. In short, he took his healthcare into his own hands.

Today, Press is trying to encourage other patients to do the same with Patient Commando, the entertainment company he founded.

Located in the Bloor and Bathurst area, Patient Commando’s mission is “getting patients engaged with their own healthcare,” according to Press.

The company does this through live theatre, public speaking, and humour therapy workshops, giving patients the tools to tell their own patient story and empower their lives.

Humour therapy uses materials such as books, shows, movies, or stories to encourage spontaneous discussion of the patients’ own experiences. This can be provided individually or in a group setting.

This isn’t a groundbreaking practice. It has been researched, documented, and put into use for many years in other parts of the world. Indeed, humour therapy is a credible and accepted treatment in places like the United Kingdom, where patient storytelling is regularly used as a educational tool for practitioner awareness and patient empowerment.

Only recently though has it hit the North American shores, with Patient Commando being the first theatre or its kind in Toronto.

Zal Press hopes that Patient Commando, with the help of its Creative Director, Brian G. Smith, and his company You and Media, will “act as a cultural bridge between stakeholders” by presenting the patient’s experience, increasing practitioner awareness of the patient’s conditions and ultimately improving the patient’s environment. Press firmly believes in this approach because “patients and practitioners have the same goal”: the well-being of the patient, and everyone has something to gain from shows like Cancer Can’t Dance Like This by Daniel Stolfi, the comedic dramatization of his two-year battle with cancer.

Patient Commando debuted on May 12 with a presentation of Stolfi’s critically acclaimed one-man show at the Glenn Gould Studio at the CBC Broadcast Centre. This presentation was conducted as a fundraiser for the benefit of Lilah’s Fund, dedicated to SickKids’ research into neuroblastoma, a cancer most commonly diagnosed in children under the age of five.

“When the story is funny, it really has the power to change lives,” said Press.

– Jonathan Lee, The Annex Gleaner

Published in The Annex Gleaner, June 2011