Go Get ‘Em, Tiger! One Patient’s Approach to Thalassemia

October 4, 2014 – Marsha DeSalvatore understands the saying about making lemonade when life hands you lemons; this talented and vivacious woman has learned to use the fact that she has thalassemia as a way to express herself through comedy and improvisation. In doing so, she helps herself and educates others about what it means to daily live with a chronic condition. CAF was happy to catch up with Marsha recently and talk with her about her experiences.


Marsha DeSalvatore

CAF: You have been using humor as a way to explore thalassemia. Can you talk a little about what you have done, how it helps, etc.?

Marsha: Ever since I was a child, I was aware of how laughing made me feel while I was going through unpleasant situations at the hospital. I have been blessed with a very funny father who is always telling stories, doing impressions and being entertaining. When he came to the hospital to visit me, he would try to make me laugh and that’s when I realized that in those moments I was transported out of what was happening: sad clinic, smells of hospital stuff, needle in my arm, sounds of the transfusion monitor and blood going through my body. Laughing made me feel good even in this unpleasant situation.

Marsha leading a workshop on improvisation and thalassemia at 2014 Patient-Family Conference

Marsha leading a workshop on improvisation and thalassemia at 2014 Patient-Family Conference

Now I am blessed again to be in Rome and have a doctor who prides himself on being the Italian Patch Adams. He is always teasing the patients, telling jokes and making fun of the nurses which makes the clinic into an almost comedy club. Again those moments are when I am transported to happy place whilst being in a painful place.

While living in Rome, I discovered my actress side. I started taking acting classes which eventually led me to working as a comedian today. In the classes, I had to take improv (improvisation) classes. Improv is a form of acting which allows the person to think on their feet in the moment with no script. The goal (in brief words) is working on being in the moment, letting go of your inhibitions, getting out of a person’s comfort zone and having fun. The exercises range from simple warm up exercise to name games to later on evolving scenes with partners that become 2-3 minute mini-plays. As I started getting into this art form which helps me on stage as a comedian, I began to feel the same thing as I did when I was in the hospital: that I was transporting myself to a happy place in a rather uncomfortable situation and applying some of the improv rules to help with everyday life with a chronic illness.

How would you express your philosophy of dealing with the challenges that thalassemia can present?

Don’t fight it, embrace it and find an outlet that gives you happiness whether it’s through exercise or art.

For sure, you will have days when you need to cry, scream, or be alone, but embrace those moments. This is not something that goes away, so try to find ways to live with it. Remember you are in charge of your illness; it makes up a small percentage of who you are. Find out what you like and who you are. Use those tools to have an outlet.

For me, it’s laughing with friends, travelling, taking a walk in nature, doing yoga and acting which helps me feel better. When I get down with my constant hospital life, I do something for myself.

Do you have any advice that you would pass on to others with thalassemia?

As my wise father has always told me, in his thick Italian accent, “Marrrsshha, you got two ways to deal with this thalassemia: you can be angry and hit your head against the wall, but then it is going to bleed – and you need the blood. Or you can smile and go get ’em, Tiger!”

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I hope to be able to use my comedy and do improv with patients of any illness because the thought of giving them a moment of laughter in a moment of pain makes my life as a comedian so much more gratifying. Better than any audience I could ever have.


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