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Website featuring Canadian doctor, Monty Python pal blends humour, health advice

01/19/2012 04:59 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - When the late Dr. Robert Buckman came up with the idea of producing videos laced with humour to help patients deal with chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and asthma, he turned to his old pal Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.

The collaboration between the Canadian cancer specialist and the British comedian has led to a series of videos that combine laughs with practical health advice, which have been incorporated into a Canadian-made website called myhealthtips.com.

Buckman, who immigrated to Toronto from London in 1985, had met Jones six years earlier while moonlighting as a stand-up comic, doing bits with partner Chris Beetles as one half of the comedy duo Beetles and Buckman.

Despite developing an autoimmune disease that had left him partially paralyzed, the "irrepressible" Buckman not only practised oncology, but also turned his talents to creating TV shows that focused on health issues and penned several books, among them 1992's "How to Break Bad News: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals" and "Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence" in 2006.

"Rob became a guru of communicating health issues to the public," said Jones, in Toronto on Thursday to promote the launch of the subscription website created by health-education company Lyceum Inc. "That was his passion, actually communicating how doctors could communicate" with patients in an empathetic way.

"It's teaching doctors how to have a bedside manner, and doing it with humour," Jones explained. "And so when he suggested the idea of linking comedy to health issues, I thought it was a great idea.

"I said yes immediately."

The website features a series of videos, five- to 10-minutes each, in which Buckman and Jones perform a comic banter that focuses on a particular chronic disease or health-related problem: asthma, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, quitting smoking and weight control.

"They all involve changing your lifestyle in some way, either diet or exercise," Jones said. "Myhealthtips.com uses humour to get this over and reinforce the message ... you can remember something because you've seen it as a joke.

"You remember that, and as you're about to have your fifth hamburger or something like that, you think, 'Oh maybe I shouldn't, rather than just a list of dos and don'ts."

The site also provides an online social forum where subscribers can share experiences with others "so you don't feel so alone in your condition," he said.

The gig has even resulted in Jones altering his own habits.

"I don't take so much salt now and I'm looking at my diet. This morning I ate an apple, which is very odd for me," Jones said with a throaty laugh.

He and Buckman had planned to continue their collaboration, but it was not to be.

On Oct. 9, Buckman bade farewell to Jones and the production crew after a London pub lunch in order to catch a flight home. The 63-year-old died in his sleep en route to Toronto.

While Buckman's sudden death was a shock, Jones seems to have found solace in remembering his final days spent in the company of friends, doing what he loved.

"He had such a good last week. I can't imagine a better way to go, honestly."

Some of the proceeds from the website — membership costs $9.99 and includes 52 weeks of emailed health tips, recipes and supportive lifestyle information — will go to a trust to continue Buckman's work to make medicine more accessible for patients.

"It's doing what he wanted to do, so we want to sort of perpetuate his memory and carry on what he was wanting to do," said Jones, who hopes to continue filming the video series with British doctor-comedian Phil Hammond.

"I'm quite keen to carry it on actually because I think it's a good principle and a good thing to do. And there's no end of chronic conditions that we could make films about."

As for Jones, the Monty Python alumnus has gone far beyond his comic roots, channelling his creativity into fiction and academic writing, music, film and stage.

Last year, he published three books — a collection of children's stories, a compilation of short stories and a small novel. He also penned a libretto for a Royal Opera House production, "The Doctor's Tale," based on one of his short stories about a "wonderful" doctor loved by all his patients — and who happens to be a dog.

Jones, who turns 70 on Feb. 1, is also working on a film based on another of his stories; has been asked to create an opera to be performed on a travelling barge during the London Olympics this summer; and is working with songwriter Jim Steinman on a heavy-metal version of "The Nutcracker."

While he doesn't see much of fellow Monty Python cut-ups John Cleese and Eric Idle, who now both live outside the U.K., Jones said he keeps in touch with Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, who live near his Hampstead Heath home in central London.

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