Clown doctors show that sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine. CAMERON TAYLOR, of Clown Doctors New Zealand Charitable Trust, reports.

“What an invaluable service. They bring joy, community and lift the spirits of patients and staff, all of which helps healing. Thank you.”

These were the heartfelt words of Lena Robertson, a nurse from Christchurch’s Princess Margaret Hospital, referring to a drug-free service that aids the recovery process, while supporting patients and hospital staff across Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland; a service provided by Clown Doctors New Zealand.

Clown doctors aren’t real doctors dressed as clowns. They are professional performing artists who receive an academic education from the International Institute for Medical Clowning, Steinbeis University, Berlin. This programme involves studying a variety of age-related conditions, health science, psychology, social and cultural studies, as well as compassion and spirituality.

“Medical clowning is a serious business,” explains founder and chief executive of Clown Doctors New Zealand, Professor Thomas Petschner, “because you’re visiting people in hospital and you have to be sensitive to what they are going through. There’s potential to cause real damage if people think they can just turn up in a ward, juggle and tell a few jokes.”

Clown doctors are also trained to provide distraction during difficult treatments and to give psychological support and motivation for physical therapy.

“Clown doctors are very different from other types of clowns,” says programme director Rita Noetzel. “They’re interacting with people in various states of sickness – entering their rooms, their personal space – so they can’t be too over the top.”

Clown doctors don’t wear coloured wigs, big shoes or have painted faces. Instead, they look more like slightly eccentric hospital staff. They may have colourful shirts, bright knee-high socks, or a large handkerchief in their top pocket. Of course, the red nose is a dead giveaway.”

Bringing back good memories

Currently, clown doctors visiting the elderly all wear white lab-coats with the Clown Doctors logo on the back. But as Rita explains, “In our work with the elderly, we are moving towards using costumes reminiscent of a specific era in patients’ pasts. This helps trigger memories and avoids the possibility of being mistaken for a medical doctor.”

The Clown Doctors New Zealand Charitable Trust was founded by Professor Thomas Petschner and Rita Noetzel in 2009. “We met while working together at a medical centre,” Rita says. “Thomas told me he’d come across clown doctors in Europe, said there’s nothing like it in New Zealand and asked, ‘would you be crazy enough to try and do this with me?’ and I said ‘yeah, sure’.”

Shortly after that pivotal conversation, Noetzel and Prof Petschner presented the idea to the board of Princess Margaret Hospital, the Christchurch hospital with dedicated aged care wards. Director of Nursing Kathy Peri thought it was a great idea and wanted to know when they could start.

“The sound of the ukulele in the corridor is an alert for me that the clowns have arrived to provide their highly artistic and humorous work to the older people who are currently patients in the hospital,” says Peri. “We sincerely embrace the clown doctors as being part of the interdisciplinary team at Older Person Health and look forward to the ongoing working relationship we have with the Clown Doctors service.”

Scientific backup

Devil-may-care persona notwithstanding, the clown doctor premise is supported by 40 years of solid scientific evidence proving the positive effects of smiling and laughing on the human body and mind. “People still ask me if there really is a connection between laughter and health,” says Prof Petschner. “That’s like asking if the Earth is actually flat!”

“When you laugh, there is a chemical reaction inside the body that actually makes you feel better,” explains Rita. “The endorphins and hormones released alleviate fear and pain, relax the muscles, and lower blood pressure, along with a host of other benefits.”

These benefits include improvements to the cardiac and respiratory systems, a boost to the immune system, and the reduction of stress hormones, all of which leads to a more pleasant hospital stay. Medical staff also smile and laugh during their interactions with clown doctors, in addition to enjoying the benefits of happier and more relaxed patients. Families of patients benefit from knowing their loved ones are nurtured and happy during their hospital stay. The entire community benefits because patients recover more quickly and require less medication, providing more efficient use of our health resources.

“Patients have been very sad and stressed from the earthquakes and the clown doctors totally changed their emotional state,” says a nurse from Princess Margaret’s Ward 1A. “They joined in singing and smiling. A very significant and much needed transformation.”

Eleanor Wilson, a visitor to Ward 1B agrees. “You’re a great team, a real pick-me-up. Such a blessing for my grandma-in-law. She got up, sang, jiggled and danced, when she had been so blue and in tears when I first saw her this afternoon.”

Prof Petschner’s vision is that everyone in hospital should enjoy these benefits.

“It’s our aim to start visiting a new hospital each year, and we’re proud that we don’t charge hospitals for our service. But clown doctors are professional artists and must be reimbursed for their outstanding work. The challenge in expanding our aged care programme to other centres is finding funding. That’s where we rely on our generous donors and sponsors, and hope we can also count on your support.”

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