Not jest for laughs

Amnon Raviv is a university theater teacher who dresses up as a clown and wanders hospitals' hallways.

clowns 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, The Magi Foundation)
clowns 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, The Magi Foundation)
Amnon Raviv likes to clown around. Not all the time, but two days a week when he puts on his red nose, baggy pants, and name tag that reads "Professor Doctor." With his medical bag of tricks in one hand, he goes through Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center in search of children who need cheering up. The rest of the week "Professor Doctor" teaches theater courses, including medical clowning at Haifa University and Hebrew U. in Jerusalem. Amnon Raviv, aka Professor Doctor, is a 49-year-old father of 13-year-old twins (Yam and Toot), who comes to medical clowning on the heels of a long stint of theater and circus background. After completing his army service on a Navy missile ship, Raviv went to Amsterdam where his interest in theater arts was born. There he met locals who were involved in the circus and taught him juggling, how to ride a unicycle, magic tricks and various other circus skills. With his art pretty well mastered, he bought a van and took his act on the road, traveling all over Europe and performing wherever he could, streets included. In Spain, he polished his flamenco guitar expertise and after four years in the van and on the road, came back home to Ashkelon where he began studying for a BA in theater at Tel Aviv University. During (and after) his studies, he continued to perform, solo or with theater troupes, in Acre, the Tel Aviv Museum and various Israeli festivals. With a Bachelor's Degree under his belt and the traveling bug infecting him again, Raviv went to London to get his Masters Degree in Theater Arts. Here he became a member of the highly respected UK theater group, The People Show, and also played with the British Festival of Visual Theater and performed in the Millennium celebrations there. Back in Israel with his Master's, Raviv taught flamenco guitar at the Tel Aviv Conservatorium and together with his young students, performed in Snyder's Children's Hospital for patients on the Oncology Ward. Although he had played to just about any audience imaginable, this was his first gig in a hospital and it changed his life. That one-time-only concert turned into a series of shows that gave him the idea to perform in Snyder on a semi-regular basis, either with his guitarists or alone. At the same time, he was teaching theater to undergraduates in Jerusalem and Haifa Universities. Today Haifa University is the only one in the country that offers a degree in Medical Clowning. In 2003, Raviv heard about The Magi Foundation, a non-profit organization that sponsors the Dream Doctors Project (, a program that had begun a year earlier to train professional actors, clowns, entertainers, and artists in the craft of medical clowning. Today, the project has expanded to 16 hospitals all over the country with over 50 clown healers. They attend regular meetings plus frequent seminars in subjects dealing with the varied hospital experiences that they may encounter, ranging from how to deal with terminally ill children and accompanying patients to the operating theater. Each medical clown is an integral part of the hospital staff. They sit in on staff meetings and their input is highly valued. They are paid by the Magi Foundation, which gets its funds through overseas donations and partly by the hospitals they work in. Raviv joined the project and four years ago made his medical clown debut in Barzilai. "When I started doing medical clowning in 2004, I felt like I was heading into unknown waters. At first, the staff looked at me like I was crazy. What was this big tall guy doing there dressed up as a clown? Some of the doctors were not too pleased about me being there either. Here they were, all serious and straight-faced, hovering around a patient's bed, when this clown walks in the room and everyone turns their attention to him and starts laughing. It didn't take long, however, to become appreciated by the staff. Now, doctors and nurses come running after me, calling me in to see specific patients who need some cheering up." "Some younger kids are frightened when they first see me; after all, the whole hospital experience is scary. I walk into the patient's room and if the child is not too thrilled to see me, I step back and let them size me up. I chat a bit with their parents or whoever else is around, and slowly make my way over to the child. If the child is still reluctant to see me, I move on. I go from ward to ward, Pediatric ER, all over the hospital looking for young patients. And it doesn't matter if the patient doesn't understand Hebrew, clown language is understood by everyone." As this reporter followed him on his rounds, the wonderful effect he has on everyone in the hospital - from the cleaning lady in the hall to the worried parents of a young baby - became clear. In the first room we visited, there was a nine-year-old Ethiopian girl, clearly in great discomfort. Raviv started speaking to her in Amhari and her eyes lit up. Her exhausted father, who had been resting near his daughter's bed, jumped to his feet and shook his hand and spoke to him excitedly in his mother tongue. I don't know what he said, but he kept shaking the Professor Doctor's hand. Later we found out that his daughter hadn't smiled in days, no matter what anyone did to cheer her up. Raviv continued from room to room, greeting kids and their parents in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and something that sounded gibberish to me with a few French words thrown in for good luck. The kids ran after him, giggled, touched him and asked him all kinds of questions. They wouldn't leave him alone. At first, the Ethiopian women sitting beside their children's beds were very quiet and could hardly look at him, yet after a few minutes of the clown's shtick, they took their hands away from their mouths and finally laughed out loud with pleasure. Raviv has a huge repertoire of tricks, jokes and musical fun, and clearly enjoys what he does. The staff is delighted to see him and he greets them all by first names. "I get as much joy from Professor Doctor as I give. Every visit to the hospital is like opening night for me. It's very exciting and rewarding to be able to make kids laugh, to help them and their families forget their pain and suffering, if only for a short time. I love my work…it gives me an incredible amount of satisfaction. It's always a challenge to make a child who's in great pain and fear laugh, and when I succeed, it's a wonderful feeling. Some of the kids you see, well, it's heartbreaking…but you have your clownface on and always go for their funny bone. Parents often come after me and thank me for visiting their children and some have tears in their eyes, telling me this was the first time their son or daughter had laughed in days. Sometimes, I'm called in when a young patient refuses to cooperate with the doctor, or if a child refuses to return for their follow-up treatment, their parents tell them that I'll visit them there. Only then do they agree to return. How gratifying is that?" Missiles have fallen on the grounds of Barzilai Medical Center and in Ashkelon proper, and of course in nearby Sderot and the surrounding area and traumatized and wounded children are ambulanced here. When they arrive, the Professor Doctor is called in. In September, 2007, a kassam exploded near a bus full of kids in Sderot causing panic, minor injuries and shock. The children were all evacuated to Barzilai and within minutes of hearing the news, without being summoned, Professor Doctor arrived. He was given signs by the staff that this wasn't a good time but he ignored them and continued pulling out surprises from his bag. The kids responded with laughter and there was an immediate lifting of stress and fear. The hospital became aware of the importance of the medical clown and calling them in to the hospital in times of crises have become the norm. The deputy CEO of the hospital, Dr. Ron Lobell, wrote an article for the prestigious US Journal Of Emergency Medicine in which he described the entire incident and the positive effect of medical clowning. Clowns have appeared in hospitals since the time of Hippocrates simply because laughter is a miracle drug: it helps fight stress and reduces pain by releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkiller. It also strengthens the immune system by increasing the level of T-cells and lowers serum cortisol levels, has a positive effect on cardiovascular and respiratory systems, relaxes muscles, helps people cope with frightening and difficult situations and create a positive outlook. Laughter's healing power is a wonderful gift and Professor Doctor is as perfect as an example as you can find.