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Laughter is deemed essential as hospital clowns continue to work during corona

Back when I was in high school in New Rochelle, N.Y., I would transform every Tuesday during religious school at Temple Israel into “Oscar Lasagna.” It was my clown name, which I earned by enrolling in the goofiest elective possible: Jewish medical clowning.

I went on to clown regularly in children’s hospitals, both in the United States and in Israel, after I made aliyah in 2012.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic brings much of life to a terrifying halt, I’m stuck at home in Tel Aviv, per the Israeli Health Ministry’s directives. But other clowns in Israel have been deemed essential service providers and are operating at full capacity.

A Dream Doctor clown wears a surgical mask in the hospital.

A Dream Doctor clown wears a surgical mask in the hospital. Image by Courtesy of Dream Doctors

“The key is integrating into the medical staff,” Nimrod Eisenberg, a therapy clown and creative consultant for Dream Doctors, told me.

“When Corona struck, we weren’t random clowns looking to crowd already tense wards,” he explained. “We had built lasting relationships with doctors and nurses in 29 hospitals across the country. The doctors trust us.”

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Though medical clowning doesn’t require physical contact, the contagiousness of the virus does present challenges. Facial and visual intimacy are key components of the work, so the social distancing standard six-foot separations can feel like a mile.

Eisenberg said the clowns currently operating across Israel have made adjustments. Of course there is no physical contact whatsoever with patients or medical staff. Clowns have also added masks to every costume, and are washing the costumes after every use. They are also staying in the same ward throughout a shift, rather than rotating through the hospital.

A clown stands in full safety gear outside the pediatric department.

A clown stands in full safety gear outside the pediatric department. Image by Courtesy of Dream Doctors

As hospitals in the United States and elsewhere struggle with overcrowding and scramble for resources, of course, clowns have to step aside to ensure masks and other protective gear are reserved for doctors and nurses.

“For us to support medical professionals, hospital gear cannot be in short supply,” acknowledged Michael Getlan, who calls himself the “Chief Smileologist” at the Smiling Hearts Clown Squad, a non-profit group that performs medical clowning for Blythedale Children’s Hospital, Make-A-Wish of Hudson Valley, Starlight Children’s Foundation, and others. “At this particular time, I don’t know if giving up a mask for a clown is a good idea.”

But Talia Safra, who founded the group Educational Clowning in Israel in 2016, said there are other, important uses for trained clowns during this crisis.

Her group represents the first collaboration between formal clowning (almost an oxymoron) and Israel’s Ministry of Education, and now works with 19 schools across Israel, focusing on students who face emotional and social difficulties.

“Now that students are out of school, many of our interactions have continued digitally,” Safra said. “Personalizing videos has been a hit. As a child, it feels great to be told: ‘I made this video especially for you.’”

Virtual clowning for students and teachers; text reads, “Beloved students and teachers, I miss you.” Image by Courtesy of Educational Clowning

Some kids are home wondering how they can spend their days, so Safra created a fast motion video of herself passing the time. This way, the kids can laugh at what may otherwise make them feel insecure.

Since Israel went into lockdown, one of the children Safra worked with regularly experienced the death of a parent. She said she started a game of voice-note ping-pong with the student, imitating the noise of a ping-pong ball. It went on for hours.

Eisenberg, who has continued to clown at Dana Children’s Hospital in recent weeks, thinks a medical crisis like the one we are currently in is actually a critical time for clowning.

“We aim to lighten the load during otherwise unpleasant situations,” he said. “As much as we’re here for the sick, we’re also here for the staff, painting smiles on nurses’ masks and providing the perfect amount of distraction.”


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