Patient Stories: Drawing Strength: Cartoons As Medicine

“There’s a cartoon in there somewhere!” This is my usual response to family scenarios, relationships, work, health issues and a general “day in the life” of any of us. Have I always responded this way? Definitely not.

Cartooning was never anything I had planned to do. It was nothing I would have labeled an alternative career. It wasn’t even a skill or talent I was aware I possessed, much less worked on developing. Of course, I hadn’t planned on getting ill either. Nor had I planned on ending up in the hospital, going through endless hours and days of testing and lab work, anxiously awaiting results. When all the doctors reached a consensus on the diagnosis (spinal meningitis and a pituitary tumor), it was a relief of sorts. Medically categorized, I knew I could deal with the implications and complications presented to me. What I couldn’t predict was the extreme fatigue, dizziness, visual disturbances , severe depression and debilitating pain. I was prescribed various medications to provide some relief. To the frustration of the medical staff and myself, none were effective. I decided a positive attitude and strong faith were going to have to be my illness-conquering tools. I prayed for guidance and strength. God answered my prayers by handing me another tool to use. It was an unexpected one. The medicinal power of humor.

Now, I had always heard the line that “God must have a sense of humor” or that “ A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” I just never figured I’d have to put those words to work. I began smiling at staff and patients alike. In fact, I started smiling about everything. And I laughed. “You need a spinal tap.” Smile. “Time for some more lab work.” Smile. “Just one more MRI.” Smile. I was sure my mind over weakened matter approach was going to be effective, although my developing sense of humor was met with more than one suspicious look. Even my family questioned my newfound technique. I suspected my medical chart was reviewed to see if I was on some sort of prescription drug whose side effects included “smiling at inappropriate times” and “laughing while in pain.”

With that kind of review (and 13 years as a professional social worker), I anticipated they would send me upstairs for a psychological evaluation. Instead, I was wheeled down the hall for an electroencephalogram (or, more simply, an EEG). All those wires glued to someone’s head would in most patients induce fear, anxiety, or at least a visual flashback of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein. For me, it triggered my first cartoon.
When I presented my drawing to the technicians, they laughed out loud and taped the cartoon to the wall. It was all the incentive I needed. My endocrinologist witnessed my new addiction to white copier paper and black marking pens. He decided my cartoons deserved a special place in my medical records.

Once released from the hospital I self-prescribed cartooning as a tool for healing and recovery. I found immense enjoyment in this new venture and noticed a behavioral change in myself. As I returned to my corporate day job, I found that I couldn’t wait to get home in the evening to my drawing board. I decided to pursue cartooning and an old passion of mine –writing- as a combined new career. Single and self-supporting at the time, I knew it would require determination and a lot of hard work. Some people encouraged me. “Go for it! Now is the time!” However, most people said, “Are you crazy? You can’t do that for a living! It has nothing to do with your degree. You aren’t formally trained. You’ll have to abandon those restrictive suits, uncomfortable shoes, mundane meetings and your beeper!” I would smile and offer a laugh in response. “I LOVE what I’m doing!” That usually finalized the inquisition. I also knew that when God bopped me on (and in) my head with this cartooning gift, it was for a reason. I knew that the plan for my future included using the tools of art and humor to assist others in their journeys. And that was a powerful motivator and source of inspiration.
As I made the transition, I loved how I felt. I loved how my physical health was improving by leaps and bounds. I loved how my sense of humor spilled over into other facets of my life. I felt hopeful, optimistic, energized and spiritually excited! And the best part? I loved the way sharing my cartoons and smile brought a lift to others. I started going to hospitals and clinics, passing out cartoons to staff and patients alike. My phone started ringing off the walls with requests from people who wanted me to mail a cartoon to someone with an illness, someone going through a tough family situation or difficulties at work, someone having a birthday, and yes, someone who has suffered a death in their family. The response was so great , I decided to gather all my cartoons in book format, and released my first book, “…You Never Asked For This!”

It’s been thirteen years since I was hospitalized. I’ve been published widely in the U.S. and Europe and recruited as a speaker. And yes, there’s still an itsy bitsy spot in the pituitary gland where the tumor USED to be. I laugh and know that having hormones that go astray is not necessarily a bad thing. In my case, I let them go to work(or play) for me.
The last time I completed a medical form requesting any pertinent past or present medical conditions, I filled in the blank with Endocrine Microadenoma: i.e., Pituitary Tumor: Cartoon Storage Area.

A sense of humor has helped get me to this point. It’s going to accompany me wherever I’m headed and whatever I do. Combined with a happy regiment of sound nutrition, herbs, regular exercise, meditation and music, I’ve have never been more enthusiastic about the future . Not one day passes in which I don’t laugh or find something humorous about myself, or life, or work, or my family…and yes, even about my health. God has given me an incredible gift and each day I feel blessed to share that gift with others. What was a life threatening illness I now term a life affirming experience. Positive changes in physical, emotional and spiritual health are wonderful side effects of incorporating humor and laughter in our lives. I discovered life’s best medicine can begin with a prayer and a smile and an openness to change and growth. And that is one BIG blessing!

c. Jo Lee Dibert-Fitko

Ms. Dibert-Fitko’s work has appeared in over 100 publications nationwide.
A graduate of the University of Michigan, she has been a featured speaker in Michigan,Ohio and Illinois as well as a consultant on the healing art of humor. She is receiving local and national acclaim for her cartoon/coloring book book,”…You Never Asked For This!”(Infinity Publishing 1-877-BUY BOOK) as well as her poetry book, “Evening Palette”. Accolades include Charles Osgood (CBS News),Dr. Patch Adams and Duke University Health and Humor Association(NC). Jo Lee has been a registered social worker for over 25 years, featured in newspapers throughout Michigan , as well as radio and Public Television. She is a member of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, Saginaw YMCA, Flint(MI) Institute of Music, Flint Festival Chorus and the Small Publishers Association of North America. She fondly refers to her pituitary gland as the ‘cartoon storage area”.

Jo Lee may be reached at (989) 652-3174 or (

Her book may be purchased through Infinity Publishing
(Toll Free 1-877-BUY BOOK),Amazon, Barnes and Noble Online or via the author.