Dr Giggle, clown-tern and Dr Curly doing the rounds at the Alice Springs Hospital. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Like clockwork, paediatric patients at Alice Springs Hospital get a regular dose of humour twice a week from the Clown Doctors, where they attempt to distract, cheer up and help the children cope with being in hospital.
Sandi Tohi is the clinical nurse manager in the ward where there has been a 10-year relationship with the Humour Foundation, the organisation which auspices the program nationwide.
“They bring humour and they bring laughter and they bring joy to kids because the kids always love them,” Ms Tohi said.
Sandi Tohi, clinical nurse manager in the paediatric ward at the Alice Springs Hospital. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
“Sometimes when the nurses and the doctors are really busy, they’re too busy to provide joy. We’re just getting things done where we’re looking after their health care needs.
Dr Curly is not only a ukulele and singing doctor, but also has special skills in the art of distraction.
She has been a clown doctor for five years and relishes her time with the children and her own special take on ‘medical’ procedures.
“One of my jobs is to perform important heart surgery, and as part of my heart surgery my job is to make the kids giggle and laugh,” she said.
Dr Curly’s alter ego, Alecia Buchanan, has a penchant for community acting and performing.
“I know she’s a bit dull and a bit ordinary, but I think she thought that she might like to give clown doctoring a crack. So good luck to her I say,” Dr Curly said.
Clown conference sharpens the comedy
Dr Bump and Dr Curly giving a patient at the Royal Darwin Hospital the right dosage of humour. (Supplied: The Humour Foundation)
Recently, more than 70 Clown Doctors from all over Australia packed their stethoscopes, red noses and over-sized shoes and headed to Sydney for a unique conference to hone their funny bones.
Dr Curly said that they were in workshops for a week to hone their skills in building rapport and connecting with those in hospital or others in contact with the health system.
“We have a very special day where we meet parents and relatives of patients, and sometimes ex-patients themselves, or people who are ongoing patients,” she said.
“We have time with them and we get to talk to them, when we’re not in our costumes or in our outfits, and we get to have some feedback about how important the Clown Doctor work has been for them as a family.
“They say without a doubt that the Clown Doctors have been an integral part of their experience at the hospital, and especially for children.
“For some children it has been the only time that they have enjoyed themselves at the hospital, the only time perhaps that they’ve smiled or laughed.”
Clown Doctors’ appearance makes a difference to the mood of the patients. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Dr Curly said there was one mother at the conference who told the story of her son who was unwell and whose demeanour would change for the worse when doctors and nurses would enter his room.
“He knew it was going to be another procedure and some sort of intervention, but when the Clown Doctors arrived at the door he would lean forward and he was just eager to see them [the medical staff] again,” she said.
“She was so moved by that, and when she was there she made eye contact with all 70-plus of us and said ‘You matter, you matter, you matter, you matter, you matter’.”
Patch Adams inspiration for foundation
The founder of Clown Doctors was the late Dr Peter Spitzer, who brought the philosophy to Australia after meeting Patch Adams.
“Dr Spitzer wanted to be an actor, he had good friends who were actors who wanted to be doctors,” said the current CEO of the Humour Foundation, Tony Warner.
“He was a big believer in the power of the health benefits of laughter.
“What started as a pilot in 1997 at the Royal Hobart Hospital is now a program in 24 children’s hospitals across Australia.”
Clown Doctors gather at the recent clown doctors’ conference. (Supplied: The Humour Foundation)
Mr Warner is unapologetic about the length of time of the recruitment and training process.
“It can take about a year to become a fully fledged Clown Doctor. That sounds like a long time, but it’s deliberate, because we want Clown Doctors that are resilient, that endure the audition process so that we can have consistency in hospitals,” he said.
“It leads to a high quality program and the children in the hospitals are the ones who benefit.”