The tears of a clown

I’m no longer some guy trying to put on a costume. Now I’m a medical clown.

A medical clown at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A medical clown at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What does a clown do when he finds himself on the twelfth story of a hospital building, half in costume, when a missile siren goes off? I’m sure a creative film director could have made a wonderful slapstick comedy of it, but I found myself in quite a dilemma.
On the one hand, as a former Home Front Command officer, I should set an example and go to the secure area.
On the other, as the son of a doctor, I know that medical staff is supposed to put the well-being of the patients first, so I should finish getting dressed and get out there. A half-dressed clown running scared is not exactly a sight that makes people feel better.
There’s a doctor in the room who hasn’t even bothered to look up from the computer screen where he’s typing away.
Then again, I’m not a doctor, not even exactly medical staff… hmm… the Home Front Command officer in me knows that in fact there is no real safe zone on this floor. The staff along with the patients who can get out of bed just move to the center of the ward away from the windows.
The rest of the patients just stay in bed. Besides, what’s the chance a missile will be aimed exactly here? And even if it is, Iron Dome will take it out…. right? I hesitate, then keep dressing.
Boom, Boom.
Far off but quite distinct, then quiet. OK, maybe standing in a room full of windows is not such a great idea, but nothing happened here, so I carry on. The siren goes off again. I quickly pull on my suspenders and put on my nose. No makeup, but good enough. I’m no longer some guy trying to put on a costume.
Now I’m a medical clown.
I rush out to the ward; the siren is still going. Walking to the center of the ward, where people have congregated, I already manage to draw a few smiles. I hate to say it, but the timing of the second siren was just perfect. I pull out a small metal bowl, used for dipping sushi in soy sauce, and put it on my head.
“Kipat Barzel!” (Iron Dome) I declare, and add that I will soon be supplying everyone with their own personal Iron Dome. Now I get some laughs, and a couple of people start playing along. A minute or two later, people start to disperse, going to their duties and rooms, and I go back to my dressing room to do my makeup.
I start my rounds. I remember that when I rushed to the center of the ward I saw a patient in the first room standing up next to his bed, turning up the sound on the TV. Unlike some of the bed-ridden patients, he could have moved to the ‘safe zone’ and didn’t. It occurs to me that something to talk about is fear, and how people cope with it. I ask him where he’s from, then joke with him that obviously the reason he’s not afraid is that he’s from Petah Tikva, which means the ‘opening of hope.’ This goes over reasonably well, and by the next room I have my lines figured out.
One advantage of going door to door is that the people in the new room don’t know what I said and did in the previous one. The amazing result is that I can tell the same joke again and again, and people still laugh. Often I come with a few ready-made jokes, but today I make one up on the fly, and improve it as I go along. While visiting one of the later rooms, I ask the patients, visitors and staff whether they feel afraid. After talking about it for a bit, I tell them the truth is that I’m afraid.
Then I pause.
“I’m afraid of my wife” Pause. This already draws some smiles, since it’s not what was expected.
“I’m afraid my wife will find out... you understand…” Pause again. That’s the upside of being in a adult ward: They think they’re dealing with an adult, so they make very specific assumptions about what this means.
“I’m afraid she’ll find out I’m the one who ate all the ice cream last night, and not my son.”
It works every time, and is all about creating the wrong expectation, and having the right timing. That joke is thanks to my father-in-law’s soft spot for ice cream, which inspired me – and, of course, to my vigilant wife and partner, who guards my diet and is my inspiration in all good things.
The visit is both an emotionally taxing, and an uplifting experience. I meet a young man who seems very tired. Just as I was feeling like I’m doing close to nothing, he tells me what wonderful and important work I’m doing. I half-drop my clown identity for a moment, and tell him I get much more than I give.
I have a couple of discussions about fear, with Avigail, the housekeeper, and Shulamit, the insurance broker, both of whom could not get out of bed and were very brave about it. I meet Shimon, from Sderot, hit in the leg by a Grad missile, who considers Tel Aviv a quiet and peaceful break. I exchange card tricks with Itzik, and talk with Alora, who laughed at anything I did, and explained to me in broken Hebrew that although she speaks only Russian, she knows how to say ‘laytzan’ (clown in Hebrew).
There was also Fatima, an Arab girl from the North, and her visiting mother and sister.
When my language skills failed, the Iron Dome sushi bowl was a great asset in helping patients and visitors forget their pain and troubles for a little while. A bittersweet victory.
‘Kipat Barzel’ has become yet another term that people of all languages and cultures in Israel understand.
I hope that in the near future there will be more peaceful terms that bring us all together.
Simcha the (Recycling) Clown came into being in 2011, after completing a medical clowning course at Simchat Halev. Since then, he has been volunteering at the Sourasky (AKA Ichilov) Medical Center in Tel Aviv together with his partner Lamlam the magician.