Second City Helps Northwestern Medicine Parkinson's Patients

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences March 03, 2015
You’d never guess from the laughter leaking out into the hallway that it was a Parkinson’s support group meeting. 

But when the featured guests are Second City actors and improv and comedy are on the agenda, so is having a good time. And for the more than 40 Parkinson’s patients who attended the meeting at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, it was a chance to remember how good it feels to tell a few jokes and make the person sitting next to you laugh.

“Improv comedy cultivates focus, improves communication, reduces stress and promotes feelings of acceptance and compassion,” said Tanya Simuni, MD, director of Northwestern Medicine's Parkinson’s disease and Movement Disorders Center. “All of these issues are significant contributors to daily function in a Parkinson’s patient.”

Front and center in the group was Alice Gollan, a Parkinson’s patient and standup comedian who brought her walker, decorated with flowers and a bell.  

“Parkinson’s is actually not funny,” said Gollan, who lives in Chicago. “No one knows that more than me. But having fun is important. It’s part of what makes us human.”

Parkinson's disease is a progressive degenerative disorder that affects nerve cells, or neurons, in the part of the brain that controls movement.  There are more than 1 million people in the United States diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and more than 60,000 people are diagnosed each year.  On Feb. 21, Second City hosted a similar improv session for the Northwestern Medicine early diagnosis and young on-set support group.

“In comedy you pretend, you take a leap of faith,” Matt Hovde, artistic director of The Second City Training Center, told the crowd on March 3. “Comedians take serious emotions and blow them up and you can do that too.”

Gollan, 71, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, the same year as Michael J. Fox. At the time, she was in her mid-50s, living in Boston and doing stand-up comedy. In 2010 as the disease progressed, she moved to Chicago to be near her daughter, and took her standup routine and keyboard to Chicago bars to tell jokes about everything, including Parkinson’s. She only recently retired from the comedy scene - but from comedy? Never. Just call her voice mail where she pretends she’s actually answering her phone.

“I never want to stop having fun,” said Gollan.

Find more information at the Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Center.