Terry Foster has a master’s degree in critical care and trauma nursing, and has authored more than 35 articles on the field for medical journals and textbooks.

His 36 years of nursing have been spent mostly on the front lines of emergency-room care. Since 1998, he has worked at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Edgewood.

Yet whenever he’s asked to appear at a convention or a lecture hall or a gathering of any sort, which is often, organizers inevitably ask the same thing: Be funny.

“I’ll say, ‘I can do that, but while I’m there, I can talk on shock, or I can talk on trauma.’ I am a good nurse,” Foster says. “I have learned a few things over the years. And they say, no, we just want the funny stuff.”

This is Foster’s cross to grin and bear.

He’s made himself the go-to guy for finding the lighter side in what can be the somber moments of a serious profession.

Sharp Wit, Dry Delivery

Whatever humor is lurking in St. E’s emergency room, you can bet Foster has found it, jotted it down and retold it with a sharp wit and a dry delivery.

He has appeared at conventions at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, played the Funny Bone in Newport, even helped re-enact some of his favorite stories for Untold Stories of the ER on the Learning Channel.

Is there another nurse who comforts and heals in the ER, then gets on stage and really kills?

“He’s the best storyteller I’ve ever met,” says Cathy Halloran, founder and president of Chicks and Chucks, Inc., a non-profit support group for breast cancer patients. “His dry delivery, his facial expressions. Even if you know what’s coming, you’re still on pins and needles. He’s that good.”

For the past five years, Halloran, a breast cancer survivor who works the Women’s Wellness Boutique at St. Elizabeth, has booked Foster for her Chicks and Chuckles comedy fundraiser.

She says the event sold out the Funny Bone, then the Syndicate in Newport, then the Drawbridge in Fort Mitchell, bigger rooms each time.

“It’s grown by leaps and bounds, and that’s thanks to Terry, who has built quite a following,” she says.

Foster says he wasn’t always funny but he always wanted to entertain. He still remembers word-for-word the speech he gave when he was in kindergarten to introduce Kentucky Gov. Edward T. Breathitt, who was recognizing Foster’s teacher as a Kentucky Colonel.

Memorable Patients, Dialogue

When he started working as a nurse, he would hear colleagues trading war stories, and it wasn’t long before he began chronicling the memorable patients and situations and dialogue he had come across.

Which is why audiences today get to hear about the amorous couple who became intimate on a camping trip, with the gentleman becoming entangled with a Coleman camping stove.

Or the inebriated man who talked his way back into the ER to tell doctors he’d discovered his cousin, their patient, in the “fecal” position.

Or the man who drove the concussion victim home and awakened the victim’s wife in the middle of the night — then returned to the ER, because he’d never met that man before.

Native Humor

“I always tell people, you can’t make this stuff up,” Foster says. “I come to work and I get material. And thank God I work in Kentucky. That’s a constant source of material right there.”

Don’t be offended, Foster says. He’s a Kentucky native, too, raised in Taylor Mill.

And he takes great care to ensure his humor doesn’t cross any lines, whether it’s a prepared bit onstage or banter with patients in the emergency room.

“You do see things that are so sad, it’s heartbreaking,” he says. “I always remind people we see people on what they will often refer to as the worst day of their life: The day they were in a wreck, a fire, someone assaulted them, someone died. I use humor very selectively in a situation like that.

“I’m very respectful. There are things that are off limits. If you’re having the big one, I’m not telling you jokes.”

Empathy Born of Experience

Foster has empathy for those in tough times, because tough times have visited him, too.

He survived a brain tumor in the 1980s. (“If I can’t remember a detail, I tell audiences, ‘Hey, I had brain surgery. You’re lucky I’m not up here in diapers.’ ”)

He lost his wife, Peggy, a St. Elizabeth nurse herself, to leukemia in 1995.  She shared his sense of humor.

“I asked if I could bring her (a video) to the hospital, and she said, ‘I’m thinking don’t bring me Beaches, Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias.’ ”

Foster smiles at the memory. “It’s a way that you cope,” he says. “It’s not like I’m skipping down the street. But it gets you through it.”

They had a daughter, Meredith, who was 4 when Peggy died. She’s 22 now and a nurse assistant at St. Elizabeth.

Terry raised her. For the same reason he never remarried, he rebuffed offers to work the stand-up comedy-club circuit on weekends: He thought it wouldn’t be fair to Meredith.

“I couldn’t leave my kid every weekend,” he says. “I didn’t care what it paid. I didn’t want to miss any of that.”

Says Meredith, “People would ask him who was going to cook or clean, and he would say, ‘Who the hell do you think?’ Back then, a single dad was kind of few and far between.

“Any basketball game I played, he was there. Any classroom party, he was there. He was the first room dad our school ever had. It was really neat having him there growing up. He truly is my best friend.”

In 1996, Foster set up the Peggy Foster Memorial Fund to provide financial help to cancer patients and their families.

A Friend Indeed

When a co-worker mentioned offhandedly his wife required out-of-state medical treatment, Foster immediately bought two plane tickets with money from the fund. He volunteers at the Parish Soup Kitchen in Covington, and he regularly prepares and delivers meals for people who are ill or otherwise struggling. He’s made meals and delivered them to Lexington, then turned around and driven home.

Foster could probably fill a room with friends from St. Elizabeth alone. When he visits the cafeteria, everyone calls out his name: maintenance workers, colleagues in scrubs, the cashier in the lunch line.

“He’s like a Wal-Mart greeter,” Halloran says. “I tell people my biggest goal is to be the female version of Terry Foster.”

Foster is asked why there’s such an appreciation for his ability to find humor in an inherently serious field. “I think it’s a statement of the profession,” he says. “Any service profession, the ER, social work, whatever, people are just maxed out. They want something to sort of maintain their sanity. I think that’s where this comes out of.

“In healthcare, the burnout rate is high, and the chemical dependency rate is high, too. If you can channel it in a positive way, I think that’s OK.”