Clowning Around

‘Laughter helps people cope with difficult situations, and creates bonds between people. It is nourishing’, explained Jean-Paul Bell, creative director and co-founder of The Humour Foundation. ‘Clown Doctors work with compassion, with open hearts. We call it open-heart surgery.’

It is not so hard to imagine how it feels to be a child in hospital; frightened, confused, sad, anxious or in pain and away from everything that is familiar. Many children are seriously ill or injured and spend a long time in hospital. Clown Doctors help them forget their illness for a while and return to a world of fun and fantasy. It is also not so hard to imagine how it feels to be a parent with a very sick child – the bedside vigil, being strong for your child and the enormous stress this can place on the family. They delight in seeing their child smile and laugh. Sharing a moment of laughter with their child helps relieve stress and anxiety for parents.  

With names like Dr. Tickle, Dr. Know it All, Dr. Phil Betta and Dr. Nutcase, Clown Doctors dose their patients with fun and laughter, and lighten the serious side of the hospital. Clown Doctors gently parody the hospital routine, helping children adapt to hospital and treatment. A red nose transplant – with the new red nose delicately placed with barbeque tongs, a ‘funny–bone’ check or a ‘cat’ scan (with a fluffy toy cat) are some of their clown ‘procedures’ that help children cope with intimidating jargon and medical treatment. Clown Doctors also distract children during treatment such as a drip being inserted or changing dressings on burns. This helps the medical staff too.

On ‘clown rounds’, they are sensitive to reading the moment. Each situation and each child is unique. A young boy was very distressed with pain in his eyes, which he could not open. The Clown Doctors worked hard to find ideas and tactile experiences strong enough to distract him. A terror-stricken 6 year-old wrapped himself around his mother pleading desperately for her to save him from the operation. Nothing the mother said could calm him. With no time to lose, Dr Turnaround produced a light from his clown nose and explained that he was giving him some power from the nose to make him strong. Suddenly the crying stopped. The situation was diverted into laughs and smiles, and the child had some empowerment over the situation. Dr Bob was called to emergency where a distressed 3 year-old would not let the doctor examine her. His antics soon had her co-operating. There are many such magic moments.

These caring professional performers have excellent improvisation skills. Magic, mime, puppetry, music and all-round silliness help bring out smiles and laughter from even the saddest children. The whole atmosphere on the ward changes as the Clown Doctors bounce in. They involve families and staff in the fun.

Clown Doctors™ is the core project of The Humour Foundation. Sydney Children’s Hospital was the first host hospital in 1997, and now 32 Clown Doctors are resident in six major children’s hospitals in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth. Clown Doctors also occasionally visit  regional and metropolitan general hospitals and nursing homes, cheering up adult patients as well.  There is also a regular Clown Doctor program at Daw House, a hospice for adults, and Bear Cottage, a hospice for children.

‘When there is laughter, there is suddenly a sense that things are somehow different,’ explained medical director Dr. Peter Spitzer. ‘The healing power of laughter has been long recognised.’ 17th century physician Dr. Thomas Sydenham said, ‘The arrival of a good clown exercises a more beneficial influence on the health of a town than the arrival of twenty asses laden with drugs.’ More recently, international research has shown that laughter has physiological and psychological benefits that help recovery. ‘Laughter is a wonder drug!’ he said. ‘It reduces stress, helps maintain a positive outlook, increases cognitive control, relaxes the muscles, reduces pain and has a positive effect on the heart, blood pressure, the respiratory system and the immune system.’

Creative director Jean-Paul Bell recently returned from Afghanistan. Patchwork for Peace unleashed 21 clowns from 6 continents on Kabul. ‘We visited hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals for mine victims, orphanages and schools for girls,’ said Jean-Paul. ‘I was told, “You have given us our laughter back,” and that is the greatest gift that I possibly could ever have, or be able to give, in my entire performing life. It makes me feel so valued.’ Under the Taliban, girls were excluded from school. During the winter holidays girls were attending school to help them catch up. ‘That girl power was just so strong that it lifted me to great heights,’ said Jean-Paul. ‘It was absolutely fantastic and the Principal of the school grabbed me and she said, “This is exactly what they need, they need happiness and you’ve given it to them.”’ Heavily armed military patrolled the streets, a curfew was in force, and the clowns gave blood when an explosion killed and injured a large number of children. Under Taliban rule fun was banned – no kites, dolls, TV or laughter in the streets. The clowns also brought with them medical and school supplies, food and clothes.

Performer J.P. Bell had years of experience of making audiences laugh and wanted to use his skills to make a real difference. So with long-time friend, general practitioner Dr Peter Spitzer and four other founding members, he set up The Humour Foundation as a charity. Peter takes a wholistic approach to treating patients, and uses humour as a tool. They were both inspired by the work of Patch Adams and hospital clowning organizations around the world. They had long talked about ‘the art of medicine’.

Laughter is a serious business. The Humour Foundation is dependent on community support from donations, fundraising events, grants and sponsorship. Principal sponsor, Commonwealth Bank Staff Community Fund, has helped fund expansion of the program around Australia. Energy company Pulse, is major sponsor and helps fund ‘clown rounds’ and educational talks and workshops. Clown Doctors make a difference to over 35,000 people a year, but cannot meet the demand for the program. We want to be able to dose more sick children with laughter.  

For more information please contact The Humour Foundation PO Box Avalon NSW 2107  Email Website

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 3

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