Hospital clowns spread healing humor

July 6, 2008 12:59:30 PM PDT
The Philadelphia area is home to some of the nation's best medical institutions. It's also home to a special healing force - a troup of dedicated clowns.

They have funny hats...

Funny shoes...

And they work on the belief that laughter really is good medicine.

One clown says as she approaches a patient, "We test funny bones, to see if they're working. Do you know where your funny bone is?" She pugts a stethoscope to the woman's elbow, as it makes a chuckling noise. "Hey," quips the clown, "I think you passed your funny bone test."

The Bumper T Caring Clowns are making their rounds at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, helping patients forget about their ills for a few moments.

Joanne Ellsworth, of Factoryville, Pennsylvania, was heading home after treatment for a brain tumor when the clowns visited her room. She says they gave her a great sendoff.

"They made you feel really good about your stay in the hospital."

Dr. Richard Wender specializes in family medicine - and the role of humor in healing. Every medical student at Jefferson has to take courses with Dr. Wender.

He says of the clowns, "They are listeners, they are sensitive to the patient. They are there with a hug."

"Humor is a basic form of communication. It sends messages. When a patient is using a lot of humorous terms, and making a joke of everything, what are they telling us? Maybe they're really saying - you know, this is scaring me to death."

Dr. Wender is also a juggler. He jokes with the clowns and a patient as he is juggling. "You can get a neurosurgeon, or you can get a juggler. Which one would you rather have? I'm not going to answer that."

Dr. Wender says fighting disease is indeed serious business, but humor is a vital part of the coping process. And sometimes, those tough times are when it's needed most.

Dr. Wender says. "I've asked cancer patients - did you use humor in getting through your experience? 100 per cent of the hands go up."

The clowns are trained to be sensitive to patients, to know when to make a joke, and when not to. Some also have experience as hospital volunteers, and are already tuned in to that.

"Dr. Hugga Bubba," one of the clowns, was a director of volunteers at a local hospital before she discovered the Bumper T Caring Clowns, and "I realized I had to do it."

She says "We can't change the diagnosis, or the prognosis. But you know what we have? We have the moment. And in that moment, if we can give a smile or a giggle, that's the best."

"1, 2, 3...," the clowns say as they put a red nose on a patient, then break into a song, "Getting to nose you, getting to nose all about you." Everyone in the room chuckles, and the tension of a serious medical problem evaporates for a moment.

The Bumper T Caring Clowns have over 100 members of this group visit 2 dozen hospitals in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area.