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Chi Lives: a dose of the best medicine

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Comedian Peggi Terzakis has faced some tough rooms, but nothing prepared her for her audition in front of the nursing staff of Northwestern Memorial's cancer ward. "Hey, do any of you girls remember my mom?" she began. "She was the one without hair."

Three years later Terzakis is still whistling in the dark with Humor Heals, a nonprofit organization that recruits Chicago-area comics to perform for oncology patients at Northwestern. A veteran of Zanies, she came up with the idea in 1991, after her mother died of cancer in the very same ward. Jokes had eased her mother's pain, and Terzakis recalled that in the 1988 movie Punchline, Tom Hanks had played a stand-up comic who performs for hospital patients. She wanted to provide a weekly performance, "a Las Vegas dinner-and-a-show package" to break up the monotony of hospital life. "I came up with the idea less than a year after my mom died," Terzakis recalls, "but a cancer ward seemed the last place I'd find myself. I needed time to heal and mourn before I put it in motion."

She spent months pitching the idea to Northwestern before auditioning for the nurses. "After making the staff laugh, I recognized the dire need of having the caretakers enjoy the laughter as well and how medicinal it is for all people--the patients, caretakers, family, and visitors."

Terzakis introduces herself and the concept of Humor Heals at each room, offering patients and their visitors a performance, a conversation, or just a rain check. "I wouldn't blame any patient that turned us away," she says. "I only want that encounter at the door not to go in vain, so I encourage them to choose a comedy program on television. Then I'll tell them about how humor builds the immune system, releasing endorphins which put someone in a natural morphine state. You can't worry and laugh at the same time."

Recruiting other comics can be difficult--many think the patients will be too depressed to laugh. On the contrary, Terzakis finds them especially appreciative; many who recover send notes of gratitude. But the toughest part of her efforts is learning about those who don't make it. In the early days Terzakis attended numerous memorial services, but the strain became too much; now she limits herself to honoring those victims who were particularly close.

Humor Heals has a Web site (www.humorheals.com), two phone lines (888-HUMOR-US and 773-PLACEBO), and an upcoming public-service announcement created by advertising giants Foote, Cone & Belding. Now Terzakis wants to take the concept of room-to-room comedy to hospitals around the nation. "I'm not an RN, but a GN," she said at one memorial service. "I want to bring good news."

Humor Heals will share the bill with Big Brothers Big Sisters as a beneficiary of the first annual "Forever Summerfest" party on Saturday, October 24, 8 PM, at Park West, 322 W. Armitage. The $40 advance/$50 door charge covers an open bar, light buffet, swing dancing lessons, and performances by the Rhythm Rockets, Gene Garcia & Razzmatazz, and the retro band Generations. For reservations, call 773-929-5959. --Carl Kozlowski

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peggi Terzakis photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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