Suzie Ferguson – a look inside Comfort Clowns

A look inside Comfort Clowns – How the Clowndoctors’ unique skillset has been adapted to support young people whose loved ones are receiving treatment for Cancer.

Lesley Howells is the Lead Clinical Psychologist at Maggies Scotland. She invited Hearts & Minds to collaborate with her to develop a programme at the Maggies Centre, Dundee after seeing us work with young people with Cancer. Our challenge was to make a day that was engaging for a variety of age groups, that felt fun and relaxed, but that crucially helped to encourage conversation so that families could create effective coping strategies for themselves. Lesley is adamant that, “The main way to help families resilience is getting them to speak to each other.”

Our aims are to build on pre-existing resilience in families, to empower children to talk about their worries, to empower family members to respond naturally to those worries, to tackle isolation and to prevent future psychological distress.

While the children that come to these days aren’t traumatised when we meet them, we never understate what they are going through:

Lesley says:

“These are normal children – witnessing arduous treatment for cervical cancer or a brain tumour, or a mum actively dying. Children who come to Comfort Clown days tend to be more complex cancer scenarios where treatment is very aggressive, or the children are younger, or there are more siblings – perhaps there is a little more dysfunction among the family.”

This case study of siblings David & Stephanie highlights how our Comfort Clown days meet our aims for the day. (Names have been changed).

1: We help the young person to feel comfortable, so they feel more relaxed and able to take in new information.

David and Stephanie (age 10 & 12) were quiet when they arrived at the Maggies Centre. Their mum was in palliative care, and in hospital at the time, so they came with their grandparents.

Dr Beatz and Dr D introduce themselves using slapstick play and general silliness to help everyone laugh and relax. Dr Beatz quickly makes a connection with the siblings as they join in with her rapping. It is clear that music is going to be a good way to connect.

As they walk over to the Chemotherapy suite, they all make raps about objects they see outside, making rhythms and discussing that they should write it all down! Dr D makes them laugh with his enthusiasm and bad rhymes.

2: We empower them to ask questions

The group is met by the Specialist Chemotherapy Nurse who volunteers on a Saturday when the ward is closed. She brings out a Lucky Dip bag full of all things Chemo – a Canula, blue gloves, safety glasses, a give-in set…As the items are chosen, the group guesses what they are and what they are for. The Clowndoctors set the tone by always making mistakes. They skillfully create an atmosphere where questions are welcome, laughter is encouraged and nothing is taboo – can you catch Cancer? What if the medicine doesn’t work? How do you know if you have it?

David & Stephanie are taking notes and the whole group is singing songs using the names of the equipment. Everyone is laughing.

3: To share Ideas

The level of connection deepens, and conversations open up about personal experiences. This might be the only time that these young people have met peers in a similar situation to them. The chance to share experiences of what their loved ones are going through from people their age and to find common ground is powerful.

It is clear that David & Stephanie are already familiar with Chemotherapy. The nurse is able to tell them which chair their mum sat in to receive her treatment.

4: Retain information

When the group goes back to Maggies, after some lunch, they draw a map of what they have learned. The premise is that the Clowndoctors need to share what they saw with their Clowndoctor friends and that they will never remember by themselves.

As they start to make the map, individual personalities of each child are revealed even more. David & Stephanie sit in a corner together writing lyrics, so Beatz goes over to offer some beat boxing tips!

5: Take learning forward into family setting

When it comes to sharing the day with the families, the whole group performs the song together. Afterwards, David asks if the Clowndoctors could support him in doing a solo rap for everyone. He took the moment and rapped for the group, with everyone making rhythms.

Lesley concludes: “The family being present at the end of the day is hugely important. Families can make a bridge between what they have experienced in the day to their home life. Everything is laid out so that parents know what their children know and doors open to communication.”

Comfort Clowns is a shining example of how a real collaborative approach with clinicians, teaching and healthcare staff enriches and deepens the work that we do, helping us create meaningful connections with lasting positive effects.

Suzie Ferguson