Teardrop_IconIt’s been a while since I’ve shared an experience with everyone. I feel that this one should be shared.

Dr. Maladjusted and I were working in Boston. My Horoscope that day read.
“Today the Celestial energy will be trying to teach you something. Specifically it will be teaching you how to share with others. But first you must go to a place where you truly want to share something of yourself. Give other people a chance to know you.”

Toward the end of the day we walked past a room that turned my head. In the room was one of those chrome cribs with the clear plastic tops on it. Inside the crib was a person, by the size, I thought to be 8 or 9 years old. I did recognize that they were probably in for facial reconstruction. I prepped Mal as to what we would see and asked if she was up for singing a song. Mal agreed.

Little did I realize that when we got closer, the person, who we found out later, was a 12 year old girl – had no face, hands or feet. No eyes, no lips, no nose.

The patient was very difficult to look at, yet like a train wreck, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
NO Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Lips, Cheeks, or Jaw. You could see into nasal cavities, a throat, and maybe a tooth? I have seen a lot in my 19 plus years at Children’s Hospital, but this had been the most physical and traumatizing?

We stood at the door and started to play music. A simple little “soft-shoe” like song, with accents of burps, squeaks, farts, whistles, chicken, dog and pig sounds.  A lullaby arranged for guitar and instruments that we clowns play so well?
The patient placed her, what we thought were hands, up to the side of her head.

A music lover no doubt?

She screamed! It was more like a squawk from a large bird. I’m guessing it was her way of telling us to “Get Out”?We kept playing a little bit more. She slowly pulled her hands down and moved a little to the music, then started moving like Stevie Wonder at the piano.  – Who Knew?

She then thrust her arm through the bars. I didn’t know if she was flipping us off, or pointing to the door? Her arms went back to her head and we took that as our cue to leave.

Mal and I found the Child Life Specialist who apologized for not warning us what we had just witnessed.I explained that we had a wonderful “connect” with her with the music. The CLS eyes lit up and we both said at the same time, “It was the child within that we were taking care of.”                                                    I think the rest of the staff was taken back a little bit with our excitement.

It was wonderful news, that we were making a difference. So to make a long story even longer.

Mal and I went back once more. . .”When all else fails, ‘Slay em’ with a waltz!’”. . . a sweet song  titled ” I Think You’re Wonderful ”

Again the patient thrust her arm through the bars, only this time I reached out and held her Hand? (It was more like a hoof. It had a split and some kind of fingernail almost like a goat’s foot.) She bent it down and pulled my hand towards the bars and just kept it there. I melted. We finished the song, and we left.

Both Mal and I , looked at each other through tears and in shock.
No matter what we have been through in life – “We GOT NOTHIN?”

Her face, or lack of, haunted me enough to call our emotional hygiene person. We talked about this wonderful experience and my associate explained that we might of been the first to ever engage this girl with something?

I still can’t figure why she would reach outward, instead of withdrawing?
We also talked about, who knows, at what level she is mentally. What was going on in her mind?
Music, and silly little sounds? . . . A TOUCH. . .

Bubbles, Juggling, Magic, Physical Comedy, Foam Noses and Stickers wouldn’t do it.

I do know this. She experienced JOY.

When you stop to think about of all the people in this girl’s life of twelve years, Clowns were the ones that were able to connect with the inner child.

I suggested we give her a nickname. . . . . . “Beautiful”

I wanted to go see her again. She had already been discharged… No Goodbyes, No closure. There is no need.

She left, leaving an incredible contribution to my life, our work and this art of Clown Care!

Did I ever say “I love my job!” ?


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.

Highs, Lows, and False Alarms

Hospital clowning, like everything else, has plenty of high and low moments. Here are a few of mine:

  • Watching a young girl who received a new heart ready and able to go home after 10 days.
  • Seeing another child whose transplant is failing. This is humbling. Maybe we shouldn’t call it a new heart. After all, it did have a previous owner. Maybe it depends on how that person took care of it?

That’s me, looking up what ails this rubber chicken!

  •  Persuading a young brain surgery patient to turn his head and smile. It’s easy: we start the magic trick on one side of his wheelchair and finish on the other.
  • Getting a 4-year-old stroke victim to play a squeaker.
  • Walking past a young girl’s door and into a wall, only to hear a tiny voice inquire: “Are you O.K.?”
  • Dissolving in chuckles when a young neurology patient jumps out of his bed after a female clown offers to give him a kiss! (Little does he know it is actually a sticker.)
  • Laughing with relief along with a nurse who discovered that the pasty white substance she had scraped off the roof of her patient’s mouth wasn’t dangerous — it was actually just the remnants of the host the child had received during Communion!
  • Bringing a little comic diversion to parents, clustered together silently in the waiting room, whose eighth graders had overdosed on muscle relaxants at a dance.
  • Working miracles in Pre-Op and Radiology. In the Pre-Op waiting room, glazed-looking parents perk up after we’ve been hanging around. In Radiology, families nervous about an imaging study bust a gut thinking about one of us squeezing into the MRI machine.
  • Visiting a little girl who tells her mother she won’t eat unless the clowns come to see her every day. Just what we need — kids going on hunger strikes!
  • Watching the Boston Fire Department race to the rescue after we clowns powder our makeup in the hospital’s Wolbach Building. Our baby powder sure doesn’t smell like smoke, but maybe to a smoke detector it looks like it!

Ooh La La (Or, Clowning in Paris)

Eiffel Towe

I once had the opportunity to work in Paris. The fact that I spoke no French was not a problem, as laughter has no accent.

Working with the clowns at Le Rire Medecin, I learned that they had a different approach to hospital clowning. Where we used magic, they used music. The clowns over there could make and perform all types of music–they could play or sing everything from Mozart to the Spice Girls.  When the clowns decided to play music for a young patient, they would shut off the TV upon entering the room so that the youngster could hear it clearly and enjoy it.

Another difference between the American and French styles of compassionate clowning was that the Parisian clowns tended to do more verbal improv than circus-type routines. For them, time was no factor and they would take as long as it took to do their work. The French clowns also used more buffoonery, assuming roles of high and low status. They tended to sort themselves into kings and commoners or bosses and workers instead of the doctor theme some of us use here.

The French clowns were also very open about sharing or using their props. They allowed the smaller children to hit or squirt them with squirt guns. The use of sexuality becomes a good  distraction as is a powerful magic trick with adolescent children.  The use of a squeaker in a bra of a female clown is very funny and shocking!

The way they entertained babies was interesting. I observed the clowns performing in the nursery of the hospital. In the hospitals where I have worked in the U.S., we typically heard, “They’re too small for clowns, they don’t understand.”

On the day I observed the clowns working the nursery, there were 8-10 crying babies. The staff and the clowns didn’t seem to mind at all and just went about their business.

One of the French clowns who had an accordion would start by playing one high note, then one low note —  just to see if he could get a response. Once curiosity kicked in, another clown would start with bubbles. Then they’d do a little dance to make it more visual. They took the time to thoroughly entertain the babies, and one knew they succeeded because the crying would stop and the babies would signal that they didn’t want the clowns to leave. 

They used few or no props, as opposed to some of us who haul bags, pull carts, golf carts, trailer trucks, wagons, etc.

I was able to show them that the classic circus clown skits still work. In a little dance routine, three of us got into a “butt kicking contest” with the same clown getting kicked no matter in what order we stood. It wasn’t violent, and it played well with children big and small.

Just as it is in children’s hospitals here, reality was never far away. One day, we asked a teenage boy what grade he was in school, and his startling reply was, “I chose to get cancer instead of working hard at school.”

Now I know why I do this work.

Grock, the great master clown, once said, “In order to know humor, one must know life. Good and bad.”

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.

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!

Dad, Where Are Your Teeth?

I’m in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital. The man who is laying there with all the tubes, wires and machines around him is my 79 year old father, Larry.

I stand beside the bed trying to figure what is going on. This is a man who was never sick one day in his life, but now he is doing battle with emphysema.

I have the uncomfortable feeling that he’s failing.

As I hold his now-soft hand, his index finger taps nervously against mine.

Tap-tap‑tap. STOP. Tap‑tap. STOP. Tap-tap-tap. STOP.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was sending an SOS.

Though he is unconscious, I know it’s time for amends to be made and to tell him I love him.

He was proud of me and often told me so. I was the youngest of three and the only child who showed an interest in music. His father was a music teacher from England and all his siblings played music. Music is well said to be the speech of angels.

I remember; when I was a kid, going to my Aunt Wilma’s house after church on Sundays and having family sing‑a‑longs. She was a great piano player and actually played background music for silent movies.

Dad played the violin and I played the ukulele and banjo.

I believe that vaudeville, burlesque and circus entertaining is in my genes. Although whenever I told my father that I wanted to entertain or play music, he’d say, “Get a shovel. Get a good job. One that has benefits and a retirement plan.”

As I stand at his bedside, tears are pouring down my cheeks. I look around at the powder- blue walls and an IV pole with some sort of pump that reminds me of a cross between a parking meter and a tape recorder reel. The TV above his head reads like a Dow Jones stock exchange report. I think to myself, “Should I buy or sell?”

His loose-fitting nightgown hangs on him, so I can see the wires stuck to his grey-haired chest. I look at his face. A small yellow tube is inserted into his nose. A large corrugated tube fills his mouth. Surgical tape holds them both in place. There is rhythmic song from his breath and the beeping of the machines that have become a part of him. It reminds me of my playing music with my family as a kid.

I stare at him and say, “Dad, where the hell are your teeth? You look terrible!”  I look in the drawer of the night stand but, they are not there.

Its getting late and its time to go. I stop at the nurse’s station and get one of those fluorescent pink sticky notes. I take a $5 bill from my wallet, fold it, place the note on top of it and write,

“Dear Larry, Thanks for the teeth. Love, The Tooth Fairy.”

Back in the room, I lean over the bed to give him a kiss and I slip the bill and the paper under his pillow before leaving.

That night, my father had a complete turnaround. They took him off the machines and were cleaning him up when a nurse found the money.

The room was full of laughter and joy. My father placed that money along with the note on the refrigerator back at the homestead, and told the story to everyone who visited. Miracles do indeed happen.

Quotable Quotes

Do you know how important “NOW” is?

Enjoy it as much as you can because no matter how much you want you hold onto “NOW,” it’s going to be “WAS.”

-Sid Caesar-

To know humor, one has to know life. Good and bad.


A keen sense of humor helps us to

Overlook the unbecoming

Understand the unconventional

Tolerate the unpleasant

Overcome the unexpected and 

Outlast  the unbearable.

 -Billy Graham-

Get all the good laughs you can.

 -Will Rogers-

Nursing Notes from Nurse B.B.


That's me, front and center with the other clowns at Children's Hospital Boston! Photo Courtesy George A. Taylor, M.D.


The clown’s work not only brings laughter, it sometimes brings tears. Tears of joy and tears of sadness.

Tears and laughter are attached together to the same heartstring.

We have all laughed till we cried, and cried so much that we started laughing.

We sometimes laugh at a child’s tears, but other times their giggles and laughs make us cry.


Through my work at Children’s Hospital Boston, I was privileged to see firsthand the effect of humor on the healing process. The hospital, which was founded in 1869, is the pediatric teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. Its first year, it had 69 patients. Take a look at some more current (the year 2000) mind-blowing statistics:

  • 17,599 Discharges
  • 3,447 Observation Days
  • 19,434 Inpatient Surgical Procedures
  • 10,815 Ambulatory Surgical Procedures
  • 258,740 Clinic Visits
  • 51,948 Emergency department visits (not including parents, grandparents, or guardians)
  • 900 nurses & patient service staff
  • 791 Attending medical and dental staff
  • 671 Residents and fellows
  • 988 Nurses
  • 2,317 Other full-time employees
  • 516 Other part time employees
  • 509    Volunteers
  • 365 inpatients beds
  • 11 floors of clinics
  • 8 Clowns!!!!!!

So if the clowns see only 1 shift of Medical/Dental/House/Nursing staff and Volunteers, plus the 19,000-odd kids going to surgery, not to mention a few thousand parents, nannies and people asking for directions, I’d say our quick census count is “Up There!”