Miles of Smiles

As hospital clowns, we perform for an audience whose challenges range from  chapped lips to terminal illness. Naturally, this brings up a mix of emotions, both good and bad. Looking over notes I sent to my colleagues over the years, I recently found myself reflecting on the feelings I’ve experienced over the years.

We were happy when we learned that a baby we knew was going to get a new heart.

We were proud when we saw her after she received the new heart.

Sad was how we felt when we thought about where the new heart had come from.

Crushed described us as the doctors took the girl with the new heart off the  machine and she died.

I know that when we accept all these feelings, we get wonderful inspiration and renewed commitment to our work.

And we get  joy. Plenty of it. It comes in many ways, but sometimes as scribbles crayoned by little people who don’t even know how to write (that doesn’t stop them from adding their “John Hancock” to these masterpieces.) So every time I put on my clown feet, I remember: These shoes carry miles of smiles!

Cancer Schmancer

I don’t have much good to say about cancer. But, in my experience, there have been some positives.

When my Mom needed chemotherapy for colon cancer, I took her back and forth to her treatments. We would often stop for lunch or dinner after these sessions and this time together gave us a chance to know one another better and have a closer relationship.

Then, during a trip to the Bahamas with my wife, I felt something on my back as I toweled off after a swim. I thought nothing of it, but it grew larger. Two months later, I was diagnosed with stage IIIC malignant melanoma.

I tried to stay positive throughout the whole ordeal. My war cry was “Cancer schmancer — at least I’m healthy! I’ll either beat it or die trying!” I was offered a clinical trial. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

After a monthlong course of daily IV chemo, I gave myself injections at home three times a week.

My mother passed away.

A second lump metastasized  into my lymph nodes.

After my fourth indoctrination ( that’s what I call an operation), a clown friend told me that I had been “blessed ” with cancer so that I would know what patients feel — inside and out. I believe him.

Another friend, a nurse, asked: “Do you know what makes a good nurse? A sense of humor and an incision.”

I had a lymph node section under my right arm, and stopped all chemo treatments. That was in 1999.

Humor in the healing process really works, and I have the experience on a personal and professional level.

There isn’t much fun in medicine, but a hell of a lot of medicine in fun.


Dr. Gonzo phoned me while I was driving to work that Tuesday 11 years ago. He told me a plane had just hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, and he suggested that I turn the car around and head home. But I was almost to the hospital, where Dr. Koo Koo, my partner for the day, was waiting. I kept going.

It seemed like each minute that went by that day, things got worse. The second plane, the second tower. The Pentagon. Another plane down in Pennsylvania. Hell on earth and nothing to laugh at. We didn’t know what to do. So we sat and waited.

After lunch, we decided to suit-up and give the hospital a “wash.” This is our term for starting at the top floor and working our way down, playing soft music and blowing bubbles as we stroll the corridors.

As we made our rounds, we were greeted by many of the staff, who said, “Thank God ! You’re here.”

Were we  just enough distraction for them to turn off the TVs and get back to a somewhat normal hospital routine?

9-1-1. These are numbers we will never forget. God Bless America.

Seeing with the Heart

I recieved a phone call awhile back to entertain at a birthday party for a 5-year-old boy. The woman on the other end of the line was very nice, and we were close to a verbal commitment when she said, ” I feel awkward saying this, but I think you should know–and it’s O.K.  if you don’t want to do this–but my little boy is blind.”

He had been sightless since birth. She thought a clown would make the party special for her son and all the other children who were going to be there.

A female clown friend of mine was curious about how I was going to do this, so she tagged along. At the house, we found a typical party scene — adults, kids, hot dogs and hamburgers. We asked for the birthday boy by name and found him alone on the swing set. When he heard we were there, he bailed and ran toward us.

His mother made the introductions. He yelled, “I want to see!”  We let him “Braille” us from head to toe. The differences were profound. ME: Tiny little hat, a jacket big enough to hide a kangaroo, and enormous high-top, wing-tipped clown shoes. HER: Ponytails, frilly dress, ruffled apron and enormous Mary Janes. It flipped the birthday boy right out.

I winced every time I said, “Take a look at this!” or ” My hair is red, my jacket is yellow.” The makeup hid my mortified blushes.

I let the birthday boy use my battery powered pump to inflate some of  the balloons I had brought to twist into animal shapes for the kids. Since he couldn’t see, he couldn’t tell when the balloons were full and BANG! They burst. It sounded like firecrackers. BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! All of us were laughing so hard we were crying.

Which leads me to the educational part of this story.

The Mom was very happy that I treated her son like any other kid. The boy had fun being part of the show. The guests who didn’t quite know how to interact with the boy grew much more comfortable. I was invited back for more birthdays, where the guest of honor happily played my cymbals, wore my coat, blew up more balloons (BANG BANG BANG) and laughed, laughed, laughed!

Though my vision is good, that blind boy taught me to see beyond what we call handicaps to the person within.

Lyrics – Old Bones

Old bones inside an old raincoat

Old bones inside some ole shoes

Old friends from the hotel

stop by to wish me well,

They keep me up to date

on all the old news.

Sometimes I have me a whiskey  ( Binky, or Geritol  age appropriate )

Then I fall asleep in my chair

Then I dream that I’m a man  – much younger  than I am.

I bet by now you think that I wouldn’t care.

But I love life  and I’d do it again

Though I might not be

much more than I am.

Just to turn back the time and let my life begin

Oh Ya! I’d like to do it again.

Old Bones, but Young at Heart

I was working with one of my colleagues down in Sarasota, Fla. We were on rounds in the local hospital,and had been invited into the room of a man who was dying. His daughter thought it would be nice if we visited him. Maybe we could sing him a song.

In our conversation with her, we learned she was very proud of the fact that her dad had made his living as a professional musician. He played for a lot of the “big “bands. He even played at the White House for a couple of Presidents.

When we approached the bedside, he looked as if he were sleeping. I leaned down to speak softly in his ear, explaining who we were and asking if he would like us to sing him a song. He said,”I would like that.”

The only song I could think of that was appropriate was “Old Bones,” the same tune I had sung to a 3-month-old baby who was also on end-of-life care.

As we crooned, the man’s body started to twitch and convulse. Our first reaction was that he was having a seizure or this was it! The End. As we continued singing, his daughter called out, “Oh my God! He’s dancing!”

The staff came running. No one could believe it! So many tears were falling we almost had to get a mop.

After we finished singing, my partner offered the man a kazoo. With what little breath he had, he started jamming with us. We played  “5-Foot-2” and “Please don’t talk about me when I’m Gone.”

A special moment. A special time. A special place. You’re never too old for clowns.

Baby Body, Old Soul

As we stood at the door of the room, everything was in a dark shadow. There stood a crib with the familiar digital lights and TV monitors beside  it. We saw a fragile tiny baby who seemed to be asleep with a thin yellow tube stuck in his nose. Both my partner and I sighed when we saw him. How sad.

I said, “Come on, let’s sing him a lullaby.”

As we were singing “Old Bones”* very softly, the baby opened his eyes, lifted his head and stared at us. He didn’t cry or exhibit any sign of strain or pain. He just took us all in. Then he put his head back down and closed his eyes.

We finished by fading the song down and backing out of the room.

Both of us were weak-kneed after witnessing what we just did. My partner said just what I was thinking.  “It was like an old man just admiring what we were doing. He was assuring us that it was a good thing!”

I told her I had to find out how old the baby was, so I asked the charge nurse. He was 90 days old. When I told her how we sang to him and how he lifted his head, she said that was impossible. He was far too weak.

I thought, End of life. There’s no warranty, is there? We may have been the only event worth watching for the little old soul.

You’re never too young for clowns.


* This is the song that George Burns sang on his 100th Birthday

“By Your Side if You’re Having Fun”

One summer, I had the chance to go to camp in the rolling hills of  Connecticut with HIV/AIDS kids. Ranging in age from 6 to 16, many of these kids came from challenging home situations. Their medical needs were complex.  I knew entertaining them was going to be a tough act.

On the first day of camp, all the kids had to report to the infirmary  to turn in their medications and be interviewed by the four nurses and one doctor on site for the duration.

My job, as the campers filed in cabin by cabin, was to provide a little entertainment. So I pulled out my spinning plate, dealt some two-card monte, and dazzled them with some elastic band tricks.

Despite the warm-up, I felt a little awkward that first night. So I asked them a question: “Do you know what  kids coping with a serious illness do after they eat?” No, they didn’t.

So I told them: “They dance!” And I was the first to hit the floor, cutting a rug like no one was watching. When we retired to the campfire, I did some silly magic that established me forevermore as “Magic Man.” Note to self: Never leave home without a trick. Magic is a wonderful way to start relationships with children.

In the mornings, I got to attend the counselor coffee klatsh, where the adults bonded by telling each other how they had come to be at such a special camp. One woman said her path was simple — her daughter told her it was “her turn.” Wow.

The counselors had a tough job. So I tried to use humor to bring perspective to all the “big-time-grownup-stuff” and put the focus back on what kids believe in — FUN!

Time for someone to take her meds? A spoonful of humor helps the medicine go down. Tough moment at the dinner table? “I can too; eat my dessert without a spoon! Watch!”

Friday night was “stage night” where everyone got to perform. After the usual pre-production add-ons, cancellations and jitters, the production went off without a hitch. What a show! Just applauding exhausted everyone.

One of the highlights was a young girl who sang a song she wrote. The lyrics will forever be etched in my mind.

“ Hell – lo Bird – dee! How are you do – in? I feel Fi – ine. I like to Si – ing. 

Good bye Bird – dee! I’ll see you to – mor – row. I’d like to take you home . . .

But I can’t. I got a dog.”

After the show, I ended up talking with a doctor from Children’s Hospital who said she wished all interns could work a session at the camp. Watching the kids perform had let us forget, briefly, that they had a life-threatening illness and, often, not-so-happy home lives. On stage, though, they were all-stars. The next day, it was time to start packing.

During the quiet hour, I visited the cabins. In one, I strummed my guitar softly while a young boy with a walker made his bed. Then he made the bed next to his. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because Billy’s my friend,” he said, going on to make up a third bunk.

Later that night, I was singing the campers to sleep when one little boy chirped up with his own ditty, which he happily chanted over and over:

“I’ll be by your side if you are having fun!”

Me too.

Kidneys Come and Go, A Spaghetti Tie Lasts Forever

Dr. Maladjusted And me

I think the main idea of this one is I refer to this type of situation as a ricochet. When we play to the baby and it affects the parents or we play to the parents and it affects the child.

Unfortunately, a few doctors and nurses feel  the hospital clowns shouldn’t be anywhere near their patients. We learned from Dr. Gordon Harper that some people actually fear laughter! And there’s a technical term for this: geliophobia! Some medical professionals must be geliophobic, because they apparently feel that laughing, smiling, or giggling while tending to a patient would be very unprofessional.

I can’t believe how rewarding, challenging and maturing this job can be. It’s like tap dancing in a mine field. We are all finding something to take in and grow with. Our joys range from meeting patients from all over the world (Laughter has no accent!) and little gifts like ties made from spaghetti and surgical tape. Our sorrows range from everything such as chapped lips to being told someone is brain dead. We still perform.

I am Happy to report that we at Children’s Hospital have successfully translated and taught the song “George Washington Bridge” To children from Iran, Hungary, Lebanon, Italy and Germany (This is a silly little song by singing the words George Washington Bridge over and over to the tune of the Old waltz ” Over the waves”)

Dr. Maladjusted and I had the honor to be present at not one but two “Breakout’s”

A Breakout is when a patient in one of the special isolation rooms in Bone Marrow Transplant is going to be allowed back into a regular environment. Some of these patients are in these rooms for weeks. But on the day they come out, the staff places a brick wall (made from cardboard brick covered boxes) along with paper streamers and ties across the doorway of the isolated room. Everyone who can gathers around for this prestige’s event and the patient accompanied by a parent gets to kick the wall down.

We played music, sang and danced. Not once but twice.

After the second one we were leaving the unit, I was greeted by an old friend (A young girl from Iran) on her way back into an isolation room.

We sang “George Washington Bridge “once again. We take the moments as they come and cherish them

I will never complain about getting old – some people don’t get the chance.

I am truly amazed at the way kidneys come and go, or what it must be like to breathe with someone else’s lungs or to have your blood being pumped with someone else’s heart. All of that seems minor when we’re being asked by the patient to come stand beside the bed, so they can just look at you. No magic, no music, just stand there or to just look into their room.  To get a kid to pick a card or to point to a silly rabbit, forgetting that their arm is taped to an IV board – priceless.

Permission to Cry

Shall I play for you?

By the end my first month as a clown at Boston Children’s Hospital, I had learned a few things. One is that soap bubbles are magic. The other is that when I sing and play my guitar, parents sometimes cry!

This discovery came to me one day as I was strumming a lullaby for a baby in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The baby’s mother broke down and sobbed. A week later, again while singing in the ICU, another mother started bawling. I was getting a complex. Was it my rotten broken baritone voice? No, actually, it wasn’t. It was the whole package: My size “38” clown shoes, red nose, garish trousers, and white coat with epaulets fashioned from upholstery fringe and rhinestones. Not to mention my guitar. (I make quite a fashion statement, I can assure you).

As a clown in the rooms of critically ill children, I was able to give these parents a huge gift: permission to cry. I always made sure to allow them to compose themselves before I left the room.

One day, I was finishing my clown rounds in the ICU when I met one of the crying mothers walking the hall with her baby.  She introduced herself as the one who “lost it” and assured me she wasn’t going to do it again. So I started playing and singing, and guess what? This time the baby cried!