Last week, Fiona Ferrier (Senior Practitioner at Hearts & Minds) and I went to the Healthcare Clowning International Meeting in Vienna. It is a bi-annual conference bringing together over 400 delegates from 150 organisations across the world – Japan, India, Tanzania, Australia, Cuba…there are therapeutic clowns everywhere! Needless to say, it was hugely inspiring to feel part of such a fast-growing worldwide movement. And it wasn’t only therapeutic clowns, but doctors, clinicians and healthcare staff, all advocating for the presence of clowns in all areas of the hospital.
I took away many insightful and interesting ideas from the conference, but the thing that has really stayed with me is both the value of the long-term relationships we build with the young people we meet as Clowndoctors and the short one-off interactions in reducing long-term trauma.
We heard a testimonial from a man in his twenties who was a patient of the Clowndoctors in Austria – his story rang true with hundreds of young people we have met over the years here in Scotland. When he was 5 years old he came into hospital to have the first of many operations on his legs. The first time, he said it was like going to a hotel – he put his things away, made himself at home. He had no concept of what was awaiting him. When he woke up after surgery, he was in a great deal of pain, and couldn’t move from his bed. For him, this was torture – he was used to playing, exploring, running around. It was in this state that he met the Clowndoctors for the first time and made friends for life.
As a 5-year-old boy he didn’t know the days of the week, but he knew that the Clowndoctors came on a Thursday, so would ask his parents constantly, ‘is it Thursday yet?’ To which the reply was usually, ‘No…it’s Monday….’. Every Thursday when he heard the Clowndoctors playing music in the corridor, he knew they were coming for him. He immediately cheered up. He would sit up in bed, waiting expectantly for his friends to arrive. But one Thursday they didn’t. He waited. And waited. They forgot him! He sent his parents out to find them, to search the whole hospital. Eventually, they found the Clowndoctors ready to go home. As soon as they realised their mistake, they changed back into costume and made a special visit. ‘I was so happy, I think about the Clowndoctors often, about that act of kindness and generosity. It really stays with me’.
He said that with all the medical interventions he had during his stay in hospital, the pain, the boredom, the anxiety – it is the Clowndoctors that he remembers and thinks of the most.
When children and teenagers are experiencing anxiety, they will often refuse all input from medical staff – staff who often don’t have time to address the psychological level of pain the child might be going through. Enter the Clowndoctors. While we have to be alive to this anxiety in judging where and how and to what level to interact, we have the unique capacity as clowns to open the door to the possibility of hope and positivity in the here and now. From this point, medical staff who spend the rest of the day/week on the ward, can continue to work to build relationships and good communication.
And if good communication is at the core of reducing long-term trauma in children and young people experiencing chronic disease or surgical interventions, then Clowndoctors clearly form a vital and valuable part of a wider team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. We have a shared goal.
It was really inspiring to hear from medical doctors who really consider the Clowndoctors to be an integral and important part of the child’s treatment plan.
Suzie Ferguson, Artistic Director