One of the last things you expect to see in a hospital is a clown roaming the halls, his oversized shoes flapping loudly against the floor and his spherical red nose begging to be squeezed. But a clown might be the perfect prescription for soothing the spirits of a scared child who has been hospitalized.
This is the theory behind Dr. Clown, a Montreal not-for-profit organization that promotes laughter as a form of therapy for hospital patients. Melissa Holland, one of its founders and performers, says it’s about the challenge of bringing joy to a place where there is a lot of misery and suffering.
Holland, who has taught theatre and English to children and adults in Quebec and Europe, first learned about clown doctoring while working in Scotland. She was hired by an organization called Hearts and Minds to be one of their clown doctors.
Through the program, she began seeing the benefits to patients: a distraction from medical procedures, relief from boredom and a sense of empowerment for the patient. Upon her return to Montreal, Holland decided to introduce this technique to local hospitals, so she teamed up with two other performers to get the program off the ground.
Naturally one of the first places the Dr. Clown organization wanted to target was the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and the group has become a regular fixture there.
“The Children’s wants this program because we are aware of the stress related to a hospital experience,” says Bertrand Dupuis, a Child Life Specialist at the hospital. “We are always looking for ways to diminish that stress and to help with convalescence.”
The clowns pay visits to all the in-patient units, including the intensive care unit, oncology and orthopedics. They play out various silly scenarios for the children, who are encouraged to take part in the fun. This is a key element to clown doctoring as it helps to empower the patient.
For instance, Holland recalls one child in intensive care who was confined to bed and unable to move because he was almost completely covered in bandages. Rather than simply perform for the child, the clowns were determined to involve him in their antics. Every time the child blinked, one of the clowns would squirt the other with some water, demonstrating to the child that his body could still express so much with a little imagination.
“When we left he had a little smile in the corner of his mouth and gave us a high-five with his foot,” recounts Holland.
Considering the sensitive nature of their work, the clowns in the program receive extensive artistic and psychosocial training. They deal with a wide range of patients and medical conditions and must be able to adapt to the stresses and realities of each situation.
“We ask the patients for permission to go into their room and interact with them,” Holland says. “We respect when the timing isn’t right. If a child is unsure of us, we will simply wish them a good day and be on our way.
And it’s not just the kids who enjoy the clown visits. “There is often a sense of relief from the parents at seeing their child smile and laugh, “ Holland says.
Dr. Clown has 23 clowns who work in 10 facilities in Montreal, and the organization has started to expand its programs to the Quebec City area. In addition to its work in the children’s hospitals, the group also sends clown doctors to visit seniors who are hospitalized.
“When we first started, we didn’t know how great the need would be for that joy to be brought on a regular basis,” Holland says. With the Dr. Clown movement growing, don’t be surprised if you see a gurney being trailed by clowns blowing bubbles the next time you are at the hospital.
For more information, visit www.drclown.ca.