“Hello, I am a Sikh. So Sikh (sick) that I was admitted to Guru Nanak Hospital,” says Pooran Issarsingh, taking a shot at stand-up comedy in front of a laughing audience of family and doctors.

Continuing in a similar vein, Janice Powell says, “Life is like the television journalist Arnab Goswami. We should never take it seriously!”

Both ladies are no more.

Janice died last year within months of this activity. And “Pooran didi” passed away last month, says Praful Akali, Founder of Medulla Communications, a specialist healthcare agency that created this “Last Laugh” campaign for the Indian Association of Palliative Care (IAPC) to raise awareness on end-of-life or palliative care (see box).

“In a society like ours, where talking about death is a taboo, some people who are terminally ill not only accept death but also come to terms with it in the most fascinating manner… by joking about it,” says IAPC, introducing the #LaughAtDeath campaign on its homepage.

‘Last words’ campaign

Featuring Narendra Mahtre and Manudevi Singh, besides Janice and Pooran, the campaign had won accolades at the Cannes Lions Health festival. In fact, the previous year saw Medulla win similar recognition on its “Last words” campaign, also for IAPC, where it poignantly captured the last words of people who passed away, probably in a hospital, surrounded by medical staff.

“Over 200 nurses were interviewed” for the “Last Words” campaign. Each of them broke down narrating the last words of some of their patients,” says Praful, on the vulnerability shown by the nurses, a community hugely “undervalued”.

Praful, who credits his team at Medulla for the sensitive campaigns, says his own journey on palliative care started with the loss of his mother to cancer in 2004. After a point, her pain was managed, but she did not get the gamut of services that comes under palliative care, recalls Praful.

While States like Kerala are ahead on palliative care, the wheel is turning, but slowly. More doctors are now beginning to speak of palliative care and some hospitals have started to offer this support.

Praful explains the problem echoed often by doctors involved with palliative care. Doctors are wired differently. “They are focussed on saving (even prolonging) lives and not on making the end more comfortable.” Besides, many people diagnosed with cancer in the country are not told that they have it, says Praful. So how do you start a conversation on palliative care and the eventuality of death in such a situation, he asks.

By getting terminally ill patients to laugh at death, IAPC hopes to start this conversation and make it less taboo.

Popular stand-up comedians Kunal Kamra, Kashyap Swaroop, Punit Pania and Vinay Sharma worked with people who were terminally ill to create the campaign. Some of those chosen for the campaign passed away during the process and this was “tough” on the team that worked with them, says Praful, explaining the fragility of the situation.

On a personal note, Praful says, “Pooran didi”, who is his aunt, passed away on October 10, which, coincidentally, happens to be his mother’s birthday and also the founding day of the agency.

As a messenger on palliative care, Pooran didi found her audience and received an ovation from them, be it at the visa office or Cannes, where she was possibly the oldest speaker, ever, says Praful.

Palliative care

Palliative care is the active total care applicable from the time of diagnosis, aimed at improving the quality of life of patients and their families facing serious life-limiting illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering from pain and other physical symptoms as well aspsychological, social and spiritual distress, through socially acceptable and affordable interventions. (Source: IAPC)