Fun and laughter are not things one would normally associate with hospitals. However, the Humour Foundation has a group of professionals called the Clown Doctors who put into practice the theory that laughter is the best medicine in children’s hospitals across Australia.
With an armoury of medical instruments including bubbles and a ukulele, the Clown Doctors inject their unique dose of medicine that patients, staff and families all benefit from. I had the pleasure of joining two of Melbourne’s Clown Doctors on one of their rounds at the Royal Children’s Hospital. I also spoke with Clare Bartholomew (aka Dr. Fairyfloss) about her experiences.
Dr Fairyfloss and Dr Tickle
Despite a decade in the job, it turns out that Clare wasn’t that interested when first approached to audition to become a Clown Doctor. “I was like, ‘Oh I dunno, performing in hospitals sounds a bit weird and scary.’ Then I came in and thought it was great then I wanted it. I’ve been doing it for 10 years and have no desire to leave.”
Clowns, in general, send many children and adults alike, into a fearful cold sweat, something which Stephen King could be held largely responsible for. However, as Clare explains, there is so much more to being a good clown than garish face paint and baggy pants. “People have an impression of what clowns might be, which is a bit loud and insensitive, which is terrible that that’s the way it is, but circus clowns and hospital clowns are very different. None of us have got big wigs and lots of makeup and big shoes, it’s very low key.”
Clown Doctors in particular however, are required to possess a specialised set of skills. “Every now and then you’ll audition someone and their idea of the job is really not what it is. They’ll be too loud, too big, won’t know when to stop. We’re looking for people who aren’t clowns all the time. I teach clown as well, I use the skill of a clown for performing, but I’m not a ‘clown’ in my life… which is fortunate. It’s about the children, not us. It’s not about us imposing what we think should happen or what’s funny. It’s really listening to what can help and what they need.”
As a comedian and having performed to large crowds in her other roles, I asked Clare which type of audience is tougher. “Usually if you’re performing for a general public audience, they’ve come to see that show, or they’re there to see a night of comedy and they’re all there for the same reason. Here (at the hospital), in one room, they could be all different ages, and then you could have one child with his whole family around him while another child is on his own. It’s such a different situation but this is definitely harder.”
Furthermore, often performing to an intimate audience of one, the ability to judge a situation quickly and improvise is imperative in the role of a Clown Doctor. “It’s really trying to tap into what they’re interested in or what brings them back into being children, rather than being hospitalised and being medicalised and prodded and poked. You’re not looking at the child as being sick – you’re looking at the child at whichever part of the child can play. I don’t go in and do a whole magical routine where I’m really clever and amazing. I would make the child clever and amazing. I’m very low status and stupid and they can elevate. They can have such little power in the hospital, but all of a sudden you’ve got two people knocking on the door asking if it’s OK to come in, giving them a bit of power. We’re more like the fool, which is the opposite to doctors. We get everything wrong and they get to pay out on us a bit.”
The job may consist of making fun and games but it does not come without its challenges. “I think the hardest thing is to keep engaged and keep listening to the children… and being brave sometimes. I think the most challenging thing is when you get to know a child really well and things go wrong, things go badly.”
Clare recalled a time when she got to know one 12 year old boy very well. “He was a particular articulate 12 year old. He would let you know when he could play and when he couldn’t when he was just in too much pain.” During a long six month wait for a heart donor while living on a type of portable heart machine on wheels, this boy would make the Clown Doctors little lunches as he wanted to be a chef one day. “Even when he had the heart put in, I think we all thought he was going to die. That was the most challenging thing that’s ever happened – going to him in the ICU. He just pulled us in and hugged us and said, “Thank you.” I felt like he was saying goodbye and it’s the only time I’ve cried in front of a child. It was like we were all saying goodbye without saying goodbye. But then he just got better and better.”
Now, I am a bit sensitive at the best of times, but having witnessed the Clown Doctors bring the first smile in three weeks to the face of an ill child, I think that would be enough to soften even the hardest of hearts. I asked Clare if this was the most rewarding job she’s ever had, as I imagined it to be. “You can get a bit casual about it. There was a little girl, probably only about 4, her mother was sitting next to her. I’m Dr Fairyfloss so I’ve got pink wings and pink lashes. I was doing a few things and neither one of them was giving me anything that made it look like I should stay or go, so I thought I’d just gracefully leave. As I was doing a few little twirls the girl whispered very softly, ‘I’ve got wings like that at home.’ So then I leant in and we started talking about my wings and what they could do and I gave her a flying demonstration., I’m a really bad flyer, I’m crashing into the wall but I still didn’t stay too much longer. The mother followed me down the hallway and said, ‘That’s the first time my daughter has spoken in a week.’”
“Sometimes you’re not aware of the difference you’re making but every now and then someone will give you feedback and you go, “No, it’s good. I’m doing the right thing.’ You’ve just got to trust and keep going.”
The children aren’t the only ones who look forward to a visit from the Clown Doctors. Their presence is often a welcome break from the reality of sitting by a bedside for hours for parents, and hard-working nurses get massages as well. Further support of the Humour Foundation could see more Clown Doctors in more hospitals.
Thank you to Clare Bartholomew for her time as well as clown partner, Dr. Tickle. Visit www.humourfoundation.com.au for more information.
This article was first published in 2008 on Squirrel Comedy (the website previously known as The Groggy Squirrel).