Medical clowns

Medical clowns

  •   Despite the silly nose, clowning is no joke
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    On October 23-26, Israeli physicians will host an international congress  on the therapeutic benefits of clowning with about 250 participants from other countries. Since it's not unusual for Israeli hospital patients of different ethnicities to share rooms, "Dream Doctors" also play a unique role in facilitating cross-cultural liaisons mediating across religious, ethnic and national lines. ​​​​
  • Clowns on the job at Tel Hashomer Medical Center (Photo courtesy of the Magi Foundation)
     
    ​By Avigayil Kadesh

    In Israel, cheering up hospital patients isn't just about clipping on a huge polka-dot tie and a red foam nose. Medical clowning is serious business, with a college degree available to those who want to take on this paramedical profession as part of a hospital's therapeutic team.

     

    On October 23-26, Israeli physicians will share scientific research on the therapeutic benefits of clowning with about 250 participants from other countries. The congress, to take place at the Ma'aleh Hachamisha Kibbutz convention center near Jerusalem, is sponsored by Dream Doctors, the primary beneficiary program of the Magi Foundation.

    The schedule includes plenary sessions on the history and theory of medical clowning; practical workshops; and field trips to see the professionals in action at Jerusalem-area departments.

    "The fact that physicians will be chairing sessions, and it's not just clowns talking to clowns, is symbolic," says Dr. Arthur Eidelberg, the recently retired chief of pediatrics at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center and professor of pediatrics at the Hebrew University's Faculty of Medicine. "About eight years ago, I was contacted by Dream Doctors to see if they could introduce their program at Shaare Zedek," relates Eidelberg, who is chairman of the scientific committee for the conference. "After learning more about it, I decided to be their advocate because what they are doing is unique."

     

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    A gathering of Israel's medical clowns (Photo courtesy of the Magi Foundation)​

     

     


    Beyond Patch Adams

    Eidelberg was well aware of existing medical clowning programs, such as the one run by the American doctor "Patch" Adams, that aim to entertain kids within the stressful hospital environment. "Traditionally, they'd come in and put on an act in a room for gathered children. If one child was not responding, they'd give extra attention to that child, but that was the end of it," says Eidelberg. "I perceived of medical clowns as being part of the therapeutic team, and Dream Doctors intrigued me as a means to that end."

    And this was the model adopted, not only at Shaare Zedek but at 18 hospitals throughout Israel. Rather than dropping by to put on a show, trained Dream Doctors work for the hospital and accompany physicians on their rounds, assisting in medical procedures and helping to make therapeutic assessments in the same way occupational, art or music therapists do. "If a trained clown sees a child who is not responding, he'll report it to the nurses and doctors - not as an outsider, not as an entertainer, but as a therapist," says Eidelberg.

    Since it's not unusual for Israeli hospital patients of different ethnicities to share rooms, Dream Doctors also play a unique role in facilitating cross-cultural liaisons mediating across religious, ethnic and national lines.  

     

     

     
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    ​The realization that Israel's integrative model of clown therapy is unusual in the world fully struck Eidelberg at the beginning of 2011, when he started talking with medical clowning association leaders in Europe to plan an international conference. "They sent representatives to see what was going on in Israel, and they were overwhelmed. They decided we should have the congress here."

    Not just for kids

    Established in 2002 at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Medical Center and supported by the Magi Foundation since its beginning in 2004, Dream Doctors has 80 medical clowns working set hours in internal care, surgery, intensive care, same-day clinics, diabetes clinics, HIV-AIDS clinics, rehabilitation, dialysis, day-care centers for autistic children, oncology, neonatal care units, centers for child victims of sexual abuse and psychiatric wards.

    The project created a unique undergraduate degree program in clowning therapy at the University of Haifa that is currently expanding into a master's program as well. "We encourage them to get the degree, but it's not a requirement," says Karin Schneid, program coordinator for the Magi Foundation. "We try to pick mature people with families, who have experience in the theater arts and a rich world from which they can relate to the children. This is not for someone who just finished the army, but usually men and women in their late 30s or 40s. The main requirement is you have to have a great heart."

     

    The foundation pays the clown therapist's full salary for the first year and signs an agreement with each hospital to gradually take over, with the goal of making each one a regular staff member. "These are professionals, not street performers putting a red nose on," stresses Eidelberg. "They know how to respond to ill people and their families. They're sensitive to the dynamics of the situation and understand appropriate interactions. I don't see them differently than any other part of the medical team."

    Research done in Israel shows solid results. When medical clowns take part in surgical prep, for example, patients need less anesthesia and less pain medication after the operation.

    This is the kind of research to be publicized at the congress, which has registrants from North America, Australia, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland and France. "There may be one from Peru, too," says Schneid. "We're getting new emails every day."​

     

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