The Human Spirit: A jest for health

A comic magician makes images of hospital clowns to leave in the wards after they've gone home for the night

1007-sofer (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The 50 young adults in the audience are puzzled. On their fourth day here on the free birthright israel trip, they have toured the Knesset and are now visiting Hadassah-University Medical Center, a place they've seen on TV and an icon of Israeli medical modernity. But instead of meeting, say, an expert on embryonic stem cells or a nerdy neurosurgeon, the speaker wears supersized saddle shoes and a Rudolf red nose. Meet Cris the Clown, aged 50. He's one serious guy. In French-accented English, this veteran jester describes his day job. He cheers up children who are undergoing chemotherapy. Cris distracts children having blood tests. He can make them laugh. He gets them to swallow their yucky medicine. "Sometimes they're afraid of clowns, and it takes me six months to get them used to me," he says. "Sometimes they're very, very sad and I can help." Cris the Clown knows about sadness. Born in France, he was soon an orphan, and ran away from the orphanage he hated so much. At 18, he served in the French army and then made his way around the world, working and traveling and working some more. When he ran out of money in the Sinai, he heard from a fellow wanderer that you could live for free by working on a kibbutz. He was 25, and he'd never been to Israel before. He liked the spunky country with its brash residents. He met his wife on the kibbutz and eventually moved to Tel Aviv, where they brought up their four children. Along the way he became a comic magician and won many contests as Cris L'artiste. (His real name is Daniel.) For 15 years he performed in the Acre Festival. "A dozen years ago, Israelis didn't know what a red-nose clown was. They only had Purim clowns with triangular hats. It was an educational process." And then he didn't crave being funny on stage anymore. A friend who had seen the movie Patch Adams about the most famous hospital clown, had been clowning in a hospital at the request of a local doctor. He told Cris about his daily adventures. "For two years, I listened to him describe his experience and wished I was working in a hospital, too." THE OPPORTUNITY finally came in 2002. During the dark days of the intifada, a clown project called Dream Doctors began as an experiment at Hadassah. Cris won the job as one of three positions. He had a lot to learn about clowning with sick kids, but instantly he had a personal dream, too. Cris is stumped on the English for "IV pole," the metal adjustable stand with hooks and wheels that allows patients on intravenous fluids to move around. The audience understands. In children's wards, such poles are often decorated, but Cris is determined to create a stable IV pole that's fun, like a tricycle, and that features the familiar hospital clown's image. "That way we clowns can leave a little of ourselves in the ward after we go home." Where to begin? The birthright kids in the audience offered to do an Internet search for companies that might supply such products. But there were none. He'd have to make one himself. Cris wants his IV poles to be images of the specific clowns who work in the hospital. This is what Cris did. First, he begged an old IV pole from the chief nurse. Then he bought a used tricycle from a tire repair shop for NIS 100. He convinced Shlomo, the repairman who fixed medical apparatus at Beit Levinstein (a rehabilitation hospital in Tel Aviv) to cut off a tricycle wheel and weld the back onto the pole. He met Avi, a papier-mache artist who was volunteering in still another hospital, and asked him to make a clown prototype. When his first IV pole was ready, he brought it in to try it out. A big girl whose brother had set the house afire tried it out and it was stable. A little boy who fought his infusion leaped out of bed and agreed if he could ride the special bike. Cris was confident enough to present the project to the head of the Magi Foundation in Beersheba which runs the clown project. They sent a photo to a potential donor in Switzerland. He came to Israel in person for a spin. By now the clown project, called Dream Doctors, had expanded to 17 Israeli hospitals. The donor agreed to pay for the raw materials for 28 bikes. Cris began all over again. He needed 28 poles and 28 tricycles. The clowns themselves delivered the poles to Cris's living room in Tel Aviv. Cris found the bike model and price he liked in an Arab village in the North. He got permission from Shlomo's boss for him to do all the metal work himself. He rented a truck to carry the refitted bikes to Avi the papier-mache maker. THEN CRIS suffered a heart attack. He was clinically dead. For three months he lay in hospital and thought of his project. In his absence, Avi had recruited women soldiers and challenged adults to help him make and paint the papier-mache clowns. Cris finally got out of bed. The first thing he did was to take part in the final painting. He delivered 28 clown trikes/IV poles to hospitals all over the country. Each cost NIS 2,400 - just under budget. The room is dark and cool and the students are jet-lagged but not one falls asleep - or even yawns - as Cris takes them step by step through the saga with a PowerPoint presentation. The final slides show the tiny patients using his inventions. "Ah, this one, she's always angry," he says, his voice rich with affection, 'And this one, he's a little devil." The students have a lot of questions. Isn't it hard to work with sick children? Cris tells them how in his seven years in the hospital, he's seen 60 children die. "I cry. I'm a clown but I cry." But Israel is an advanced country, and most of the children survive the harsh treatments needed to vanquish their life-threatening diseases, fully recover, go home, and resume their childhoods. "You have been to the Kotel, yes? In an hour from now, one of our children will be at the Kotel, celebrating two years of successful treatment. We are so happy." Ultimately one of the students asks the question which is at the heart of their own visit to this country and the Zionist endeavor. "Why, "asked one of the students, "would you choose to do this in Israel? Why not in France?" Cris pauses for a minute and then smiles. "I went around the world, and when I got to Israel I saw that it was very special. It had something unique that nowhere else has. A spirit. A goodness. People are hard - don't think they're not - but they're good. His long fingers form a gun and he pretends to shoot like a cowboy. "It's a little like the Wild West, you know what I mean? Everything is open. One person can still make a difference." Then he unwraps a mysterious package on stage. Voila! It's his personal IV pole tricycle in the bright colors of carousel figures, with Cris the Clown - red nose, black-and-white shoes - perched on the back. If you will it, it is no dream.