Pardon Me?

Nurse Moose and I were visiting patient rooms on one of the surgical floors one day when we came upon a young dad sitting beside a small boy. The father looked at us and then asked his son if he would like to sit with him and listen to the clowns sing a song. The boy agreed.

Moose and I fumbled through “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” asking the patient “What did he have on the farm? What kind of animal? What does that animal say?”

The boy, thumb in mouth, responded: Cow/Moo. Cat /Meow. Dog/Woof.

Then we switched to that perennial toddler favorite, “Wheels on the Bus,” and again found ourselves struggling to remember the lyrics.

But we gave it our best: The Lights on the bus go Blink-Blink-Blink. The Horn on the bus goes Beep-Beep-Beep.  ” What’s next,” I asked the little boy.

I heard: “You guys suck.” I looked at Moose, who said, “Pardon me?”

The boy spoke. Again I heard, “You guys suck.” I look at the father — could he interpret?

Dad patiently explained: “Open and shut. Open and shut. The doors go open and shut!”

Of course! It’s clear Moose and I have too much baby powder stuck in our ears!

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!

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.

The Magic Power of Bubbles

That’s me, blowing a little magic around!

It was late in the afternoon and Dr. Bounce and I were making rounds on the 4th floor of the hospital, where the patients were mostly infants.

We had finished checking in with the charge nurse, who said most of the patients were asleep. So we walked down the corridor checking the rooms. In one, I noticed one toddler in his crib, laying quietly on his side and just staring out into the hall.

We looked around. No parent or guardian. No hanging thingy mobile. No TV soundtrack. He was just staring, and he looked bored. But he didn’t look uncomfortable.

I looked at Bounce and said, “Let’s sing him a lullaby.”

We stood at the door. Dr. Bounce stands about 6-foot-6, yet when he crouches down he is only 3-foot-8.He proceeded to blow some bubbles very slowly. One breath at a time, watching each float downward until it disappeared. While he did that, I played a simple rhythm on the guitar.

The little boy, Dr. Bounce and I were all mesmerized by each and every bubble. It was as if we were being hypnotized, just watching each bubble float until it hit a hard surface and popped. From the crib, there was no change in facial expression, no smile, no reaching to pop a bubble. But the eyes followed the path of each watery sphere.

We stayed in this space for what seemed a long time but I am sure it was only a few minutes.

I played the music softer and slower and Dr. Bounce blew fewer bubbles. Sometimes when we do this, the child will cry because he wants more. But this boy didn’t do that. As we were slowly backing out his door, we saw him slowly clap his hands together about four times.

Instantly, both Dr. Bounce and I teared up. “That’s the way to do it!” I told him.

We hospital clowns often hear people say, “They’re too little for clowns.” This is because most people don’t know the spectrum of entertainment we can provide, the knowledge we have about the different stages of child development, and our finely honed ability to read the emotional temperature of a sick room.

When administered properly, bubbles and lullabies can work magic.

“Seize” You Later!

My Pleasure?

Sometimes kids with unexplained seizures are hospitalized so that their brain activity can be monitored. So they are outfitted with electrodes hidden underneath a kind of muslin turban. Then they wait, sometimes days, for a seizure to occur.

Making clown rounds among these patients always involves a familiar scenario: Mom or Dad is looking at the child, knowing something is wrong. The child, staring back, is thinking, “I know something’s out of whack, but why is nothing happening?”

One day my partner and I were invited into the room of a teenage boy. The father looked at the kid, the kid looked at the father, the father looked at the mother, the mother looked at the kid, the kid looked at the mother. The ritual repeated. Until we arrived.

I asked the Dad if he had any money and started playing a little street shuffle called “two card monte”  with Dad and the kid.  (The person who holds the cards controls who wins, and I made sure the kid always won.) When I got the Dad up to 35 cents, the kid was thrilled! He was winning!

I told Dad it was time to pay up, and my partner and I started to leave. Just as we were walking out of the room, alarms began sounding, bells started ringing and the medical staff came flying into the room.  I thought for sure one of us had tripped over something. Regardless, we had been trained to scram in this kind of emergency, so my partner and I stepped into the next room.

Later, after everything calmed down, we were walking past the teenager’s room when his mother literally grabbed me. “Thank you so much for giving my son a seizure!” she said.

I was devastated. My jaw dropped. I just looked at her and asked,”Is this a good thing?”

“We have been waiting three days for it,” she said.

“Well, then, it was my pleasure!”

I immediately went down to the charge nurse and said,” I just gave someone a seizure. Should I call my lawyer?”

She replied, “That’s great! See if you can give one to Room 324. She has been here for more than a week.”

Apparently the boy’s seizure was brought on when he was elevated to happiness and just starting to come down to neutral. Because of this seizure, they were able to figure out exactly where in the brain it originated. Later, an operation cured the boy of his seizures altogether.

So every time I am on the neurology floor I think about wearing a two-sided T-shirt. The front will say, “Visit with the clowns” and on the back would be a waving hand and the words “Seize You Later!”

Hospital Orientation

Raise your hands now: How many of you have never seen the clowns before?

Raise them again if this is your first time seeing the clowns.

Don’t I look like I know something about fun? Many thanks to photographer George A. Taylor, MD.

Interesting. About the same!

Each member of Big Apple Circus Clown Care a is a professional performer – not a volunteer – selected for skill and sensitivity during a grueling audition process. Our training prepares us to work in the hospital environment. We learn proper hygiene and hospital procedures. We’re screened, we’re vaccinated, and we undergo an annual safety review. Our artistic quality and hygiene procedures are evaluated on a regular basis by our own “Joint Commission” on clowning.

Eight of the most talented and dedicated of these clowns can be found in the Clown Care program at Children’s Hospital Boston (CHB). There, they work with the hospitalized children, their parents and the hospital staff to ease the stress of serious illness by reintroducing laughter and fun as natural parts of life.

Collectively, and without boring you with details, some of their outstanding credits include:

  • Ringling Brothers Clown College graduates and teachers
  • Nationally and Internationally recognized
  • Performances from the streets to the center ring. From comedy clubs to the Lincoln Center. Broadway to Cirque Du Soleil.

Ironically (or maybe not), three of them were hospitalized at CHB as small children.

Patch Adams drew attention to the positive effect of humor and healing. Unlike us, however, he is a doctor who plays a clown. We are professional clowns who play doctors (one of my colleagues calls himself “Dr. Gongolfin.”)

Making clown rounds

Since 1995, the Clown Care Unit has been making clown rounds at Children’s. That’s 325 inpatient beds a week, 3 intensive care units, 11 floors of clinics and everything in between. We get our rundowns from the charge nurse or childlife specialist on all the floors we enter. They let us know any special details that will affect how we do our jobs. Do we need to take special precautions with any of the patients? Is anyone vision impaired? Unable to hear?

Here are some of our DOs and DON’Ts:

DO have fun. Join in! A problem shared is a problem divided, and a joy shared is a joy multiplied.

DON’T ask us to be associated with a painful procedure. Wait till after.

DON’T assume that someone is too young or two old for clowns. We have age-appropriate material for newborns to adults.

Professionalism and sensitivity, combined with the commitment to our art, are the keys that unlock the many doors of the hospital and bring us into the hearts of the children, families and staff. In the short time that we’ve been at Children’s Hospital Boston, I have discovered how important  and what an honor “IT” is to be able to “Walk someone to the door.”

There are many doors of the hospital. Registration, Admitting, Pre-Op, the elevator, the exam rooms, the cafeteria, the garden, and the front door. Even the door from this life to the next.

All these doors taught me a trick that is sure to make anyone smile:  Miss the door and walk right into the wall!

Laughter Has No Accent!!

photo courtesy George Taylor M.D.

In the 1990s, I had the opportunity to be part of a “Clown Exchange Program”  with Le Rire Medécin. This meant I got to go to Paris for three weeks and clown around in six different French hospitals in Paris and Nantes.

I am not fluent in French. Well, actually that’s an understatement. I can’t speak a lick. But I soon learned that laughter has no accent. Working there wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. Not knowing the language forced me to be more creative.

My biggest lesson, however, came during my third and final week there. My wife Lesley came over, and we did the usual tourist stuff: art museums, sidewalk cafés. In the Musée D’Orsay, something clicked! We were looking at this gigantic painting of men in a life boat on a storm-tossed sea, fighting a giant serpent. And I asked myself,  “What was the artist thinking, painting such an enormous canvas? No one could hang it on the wall unless they lived in a castle. . .  He painted it without electric light to see . . .  Why would he put so much time and effort into one painting?”

Then I had my “aha” moment. That painting had lasted for centuries and was an amazing piece of art. My artistry is fleeting, but no less worthy. There’s only one reason I slather on the makeup and walk into walls: it’s the look on my audience’s face (be it one or many). Not a laugh, just a ” look” — this is proof of my artistry.  I put my heart and soul into what I do, and while that “look” only lasts for a split second, the moment will be in their hearts for a lifetime. It’s something money can’t buy.

On the merits of the “stand-up wiggle”

We met her on her first birthday, making clown rounds at the hospital. Every time she saw me her eyes would bug out and she would wiggle. I call this a “stand-up wiggle,” which is the highest accolade a clown can receive from a baby. I like to think this baby wiggled because she was excited to see me, but maybe it’s because she didn’t know how to clap yet? I’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and she’d wiggle even more.

She had a very bad heart when she was born. On the day we found out she was going to get a heart transplant we were all so excited we were dancing in the halls. The mother was dancing, the nurses were dancing, the doctors were dancing, the clowns were dancing and the baby was wiggling–this was celebration time!

That was a Monday. On Wednesday, the transplant was done and I looked in on her through the window of her isolation room in the cardiac ICU.  There she was in all her nakedness, baring her stitches and wounds. She was under sunlamps to keep warm. The nurses had given her these fluorescent yellow sunglasses to protect her eyes, and she looked like a celebrity. On Friday, I noticed the baby’s name was missing from the patient board. I got excited. “Is she leaving the floor?” I asked.

The nurse said,” She’s sprouting wings. She is leaving us.”

We went ahead with our clown rounds, but when we passed the room where she had been in recovery, we broke down. My partner just couldn’t take it anymore and ran for the lounge and started to cry. I ended up in front of the isolation window, looking at the empty crib, singing “You are my sunshine” like a slow ballad.

When I finished, I turned to my left and her  father was standing next to my shoulder. He stood tall, and a tear was in his eye. He placed a hand gently on my shoulder and said softly, “Thank You.”

A special time and space.

Peep in a Cup

Here’s another Easter story. One day, while making my rounds with the “ether bunny,” I heard about a case of marshmallow chicks that had been donated to the hospital. Of course these couldn’t be given to the children because there is enough sugar in them to make your teeth itch. So-o-o, they were divided and distributed to the nurses’ stations. The staff likes sweets, just like anyone else.

So I decided to take a survey of how people eat marshmallow chickens. Some eat them whole, stuffing the entire confection into their mouth. Some bite the heads off first and some pick their eyes out! Not me. I just lick them and put them back!

I knew the nurses needed a little boost of laughter. They been having a particularly bad day. I took one of the marshmallow chicks and placed it in a urine specimen container.

I walked up to the charge nurse with it and said, “Someone ‘peeped’ in the cup and I don’t know whose it is!”

The nurse burst into laughter and immediately took the specimen bottle; placed it in a Ziploc bag and inserted that into one of those plastic containers that they use for sending money from the drive thru to the bank teller inside. . . Laughing, she said, “Let’s send it to the lab!”

All I could picture was a capsule with a frightened marshmallow peep winding its way through a maze of pipes as it made its way to the lab.

Moral: A joy shared is a joy multiplied.

Bunny Tales

It was Eastertime and I was doing my classic bit where I would take this 2-inch stuffed rabbit and do a little puppet routine on a table top. I would sing the “Hokey Pokey” and perform a little dance with the toy.

” You put your right foot in . . .You put your right foot out . . .” STOP.

I would look around the room, sniff the air, and continue: ” You put your left foot in . . . You put your left foot out.” STOP.

I’d pick up the rabbit, smell it, and make a face as though I’d just noticed a foul odor.

Then, I would ask the person next to me to smell the rabbit and tell me if they thought it smelled  funny. In most cases people were hesitant to sniff. They were afraid that it was going to squirt water at them. However, I assured them that it wouldn’t.

When they finally placed it to their nose, I asked. “Does it smell funny?”


“It should. It’s the ETHER BUNNY!”