Raucous Remedies

Medical clowns bring life and party to ailing children at Schneider.

Schneider Children’s Medical Center’s clowns (photo credit: Courtesy)
Schneider Children’s Medical Center’s clowns
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the waiting rooms at Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel in Petah Tikva sit tired kids and their worried parents. Some children are fasting, or have been waiting for hours to see the doctor. They lean against their parents’ shoulders or sit on the edges of their chairs, hugging themselves.
Then, a vision appears: Cinderella herself, a princess grown to maturity, in a shiny pink gown. A tiara is set into her wig and her eye shadow is glittery pink. Around her neck is a pink stethoscope. Her kindly smile and dancing eyes assure the children that something magical and good is about to happen.
In the oncology ward, a clown with a big red nose and colorful patches sewn all over his white coat sticks his head through a young patient’s door and gently blows bubbles in.
It’s Goodie. He carries a bag of tricks, but if the little patient doesn’t have energy for games, he’ll hold his hand and talk to him quietly, spinning out a fantastic story in which the child is the hero.
Wander the wards, and you might come across another clown making a grand entrance to a playroom, announcing himself in rapid Arabic with an elaborate flourish. A young girl in a wheelchair, seated around a play table with her mother and older sister, hails him by name with a big smile. This is Dr. Sergio Constantinas.
These are not their real names.
When professional medical clowns don their costumes, they take on the persona they have created: to the children, the nursing staff and doctors, the security guards – even to each other. They never break character, even while riding the elevator. Wherever they go, they leave smiles behind. And they are passionate about their work.
Goodie, Dr. Sergio and Cinderella are part of the 12-strong team who work at Schneider. They ask to be interviewed in a closed room where children won’t hear them. Each needs a moment of focus to transition out of his or her role, and switch over to their real selves.
“The whole trick of clowning is to change the child’s perspective, to change his train of thought,” says Dr.
Sergio. “We want to open his mind to our world of imagination, of fantasy, of wonders. You need to lead them away from the painful or scary things they might be going through.
“Like when a kid is having a cast removed. The machine that cuts through the cast makes a buzzing noise like a saw. Many kids are afraid that it will cut down to their own flesh, and struggle to get away. I demonstrate on my own hand that it never touches skin. When you defuse their fear, they cooperate. A big relief to the parents, the doctors, and most importantly, to the child.”
Allaying anxiety and fear is one of the techniques learned in an intensive, year-long course.
Schneider’s medical clowns have studied developmental psychology, arts and drama therapy, therapistpatient communication, and pain psychology, as well as comic acting, improvisation, street theater and juggling.
Students go through an internship after graduating the course. The clowns, officially called “genologists” at the hospital, regularly attend enrichment workshops and seminars.
At Schneider, they are part of the educational department, meeting regularly with the medical staff and roving teachers to stay current with events on the ground.
Medical clowning began in the US in New York City in 1986. Clown Doctor programs now operate in every state, as well as in Australia, Canada and all over Europe. Israel’s first medical clowning project, the Dream Doctor, was founded in 2001 by Yaacov Shriqui. This project now supports 90 clown doctors in 22 hospitals across Israel, catering to over 176,000 children each year.
OF THE three clowns I interviewed, two are also teachers of medical clowning. Dr. Sergio teaches Arab students at the Hebrew University and at the al-Karma high school in Haifa; Cinderella teaches at Schneider.
The profession serves adults as well as children. Medical clowns accompany doctors and nurses to disaster zones. They brighten the remaining days of patients in end-oflife situations. Sometimes their skills are needed to distract a parent who’s beginning to panic when his child is undergoing a painful procedure. A doctor might wait until a particular clown arrives, knowing that the gentle fantasy creature’s explanation and humor will calm the child, the parents, and indeed the doctor, too.
Behind the makeup and red noses are men and women with children at home. How do they maintain their own emotional balance? “We’re a very close team, very good friends. This is important. We meet every six weeks, to share experiences and knowledge, and to decompress,” says Goodie . “Sometimes specialists will come to speak – psychologists, social workers, doctors. At our last meeting, we talked about dealing with death.”
“We see tragedies often,” says Cinderella quietly.
“It took me seven years to learn how to make the emotional switch,” admits Dr. Sergio. “If a child dies, we shouldn’t get overwhelmed. We focus on the goodness that we brought to his or her life.”
“When I go home, how do I feel about my work, about myself? You see successes like when a kid gets over his illness and goes home. And you see the tragedies with the ones who don’t make it. You get a whole different perspective on life,' says Goodie. You learn that every single second is important. It’s a very, very deep thing. Everyone should take the course. You can take a syringe or tongue depressor and make magic with it – take the kid where he wants to be in his imagination. You learn to take a hard situation and turn it to show a different light.”
On the way to the dialysis unit, Cinderella stops to visit a boy in a private room. He looks tired and depressed, but brightens up when she comes sashaying in.
“I’m going to perform a trick for you that nobody else has ever seen,” she tells him. “Promise you’ll never tell anybody? Except your mom, of course.” She opens her bag of tricks and takes out three colored rings of yarn.
“Now I have to focus very hard to get this magic right,” she says. She squashes the rings together in her fists and shut her eyes tight, murmuring nonsense. When she opens her hands, voila! The rings are firmly intertwined in a chain. Cinderella’s reward arrives: the boy laughs.
They talk for a while about his favorite soccer team. When Cinderella is satisfied that his mood has improved, she goes on to visit a girl in another part of the unit. While they polish each other’s nails with lacquer Cinderella takes out of her bag, I ask the boy’s mother what she thinks of the medical clowns.
“Even if you’re sad, they make you smile,” she says. “They make you feel like you’re not here. Like you’re somewhere else. They’re wonderful.”