Just following doctor's orders
In the hospital reception area, Dr Sniggles walks up to the information desk and says, “I’ll have three gin and tonics and a pink milkshake.” The reception staff play along and reply, “I’m sorry, we only do gin and tonics.”
I’m with clown doctors Dr Sniggles and Dr Dandy Frock as they do their rounds of Lismore Base Hospital. Parodying the hospital routine, they are on a mission to get as much smileage as possible from the whole hospital community.
Clown doctors ‘operate’ in 18 hospitals across Australia through the charity The Humour Foundation, and Lismore Base is the first regional hospital to acquire their services.
With Claudie Frock starring as Dr Dandy Frock and Helen Quinlan as Dr Sniggles, in charge of sneezes and giggles, this very funny duo visits every part of the hospital to lighten the day for children and adults alike.
“We do outpatient waiting rooms before people come in,” Dr Frock said.
“And we do inpatient rooms before people come out,” Dr Sniggles said.
“In and out all day. I’m exhausted,” Dr Frock said.
They laugh together. Their ability to improvise with found objects and tailor any situation to suit the people involved is one of the reasons these performers were chosen to bring the health benefits of humour to the sensitive hospital setting.
“A smile goes a long way,” Dr Frock said. “We need more humour in healing to occupy the head while the body is healing.”
International research has shown that laughing produces both physiological and psychological benefits. Doses of humour can help people relax, relieve fear and stress, boost the immune system and help recovery. Working in partnership with medical professionals, clown doctors help to put sick children and adults at ease in an often strange and unfamiliar environment, helping divert and calm them during procedures.
We head up to the children’s ward and, after checking with the nurses to see who we can visit, Dr Sniggles knocks on a door and asks if we can come in. The children and adults in the room are immediately captivated by the colourful clowns with their red noses and decorated hospital coats.
In the room with her mum is three-year-old Madison Power.
“I have a present for you,” Dr Sniggles said.
“What about a present for me?” Dr Frock interjects and Dr Sniggles then passes her a freshly folded piece of linen from the hospital shelf.
Dr Sniggles pulls a rubber glove and a large plastic balloon pump from one of her many oversized pockets. She inflates the glove and draws on it with a black pen. Madison laughs as she is then presented with an inflated chicken.
As Dr Frock blows bubbles for Isaac Jackson and his family, Dr Sniggles performs a sleight-of-hand trick.
“Did you know that some bubbles are different to others,” Dr Sniggles says to Madison. She reaches into the flotilla of bubbles in the air and conjures a hard marble-like bubble into her hand. “It’s a wish bubble,” she tells Madison.
Madison holds it and makes a wish before placing it into the sterile ‘wishing’ specimen jar produced from one of Dr Frock’s pockets.
A nurse arrives to see Madison and asks her to take puffs from a Ventolin. Madison is fascinated, watching as Dr Sniggles begins to puff on her balloon pump, much like a Ventolin machine.
While Dr Frock is an intern clown doctor, who has been making her rounds for four months now, Dr Sniggles is an experienced clown doctor who has been clowning around in hospitals between Sydney and the North Coast for 14 years.
“I was a yo-yo champion when I was little,” Dr Sniggles said.
With juggling skills under her belt and a history of doing clown parties and playing the ukulele, Helen Quinlan was appointed by The Humour Foundation as the first female clown doctor in 1997.
“The Humour Foundation was formed by a doctor and a performing artist who were inspired by the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams,” Helen said. “They wanted to bring the performing arts to the bedside of sick children so they created a charity to fund the clown doctors program.”
When clown doctors audition, they are selected not only for their skills in improvisation, clowning, puppetry and music, but for their personal qualities of sensitivity and caring.
“I always aspired to clown doctoring – I’ve been a clown all my life,” Claudie Frock said. “I like to connect with my inner child and make people laugh. I like sharing stories with people and making connections with them. Just getting a smile from someone so sick is good in itself.”
Claudie has been performing street theatre and working in schools with young people for many years. She believes that in clown doctoring, all of her skills are perfectly married to benefit her and the whole community.
“You can have a really crap morning, but you put on your nose and everything disappears,” she said.
Reading each situation correctly and showing sensitivity to the hospital environment are some of the most important skills the clown doctors practise.
“You learn a lot in hospitals about people,” Dr Frock said. “We don’t ever ask them what’s wrong with them. You talk about the parts that are well.”
“You need to have good peripheral vision and be aware who else is around you,” Dr Sniggles said. “Someone might be in the next bed and undergoing a procedure or is being told some news, so it’s important to keep the laugh in the right area.
“It’s a fine line you walk and you need to be able to stay on it. One fart and you are gone.
“We tell jokes and ask people for jokes too. But you have to be careful. We had a clanger the other day… kids have told jokes that would have made their mothers blush.
“If you do it right, people want to laugh – we never go in without knocking and asking. The show only goes on if they want it. It’s about other people and what we can do for them. We haven’t been told to go away yet, so I think we must be good at reading the situation.”
“I like the gentle moments where I sing a song,” Dr Frock said. “Especially in renal, where people are a captive audience while they are stuck to machines. They can’t move so we don’t want to upset them.”
As we leave the children’s ward, a couple of young doctors walk by. Dr Sniggles calls out, “Doctors, we’re here to help. We can give you a second opinion if you need one.”
“We’re just interns,” they reply.
“Well, we’re not good, but we’re cheap,” Dr Sniggles said.
Handing out crocheted finger puppets to staff and patients to keep their fingers warm is just one of the many services performed by clown doctors.
“We’re trying to prevent people from getting nasal shock from picking their noses with cold fingers,” Dr Frock said.
While clown doctors bring fun and laughter with them on their hospital rounds, there are also difficult times when they need to help people through their sad moments.
“Sometimes I see people through different hospitals over time,” Dr Sniggles said. “I watched a boy who had cystic fibrosis grow up and I held his hand and sang to him just before he passed. There’s responsibility and trust when you are dealing with other people’s deep and sad moments. Sometimes people have asked me in just after a child has passed, to sing a song that they’d liked.
“Once a kid who’d been hit by a car came out of a coma and said to me, ‘Thank you Dr Sniggles.’ People with those injuries can usually hear and I’d been regularly talking to him. When you see people who are that sick, you can’t complain about much of your own stuff.”
While the clown doctor service provides a counselling service for its employees, Dr Sniggles said she often debriefs with her partner after her rounds.
“Sometimes I cope by going home, hugging my son and giving thanks for life,” she said.
Relying on sponsorship and community support, the clown doctors program is looking for more people to donate money to allow them to expand their special service, which they provide to hospitals free of charge. At the moment, the clown doctors at Lismore Base Hospital make their rounds one day a week, but they hope that in future, they can be on call every day to spread the healing laughter.
Because people never take them seriously anyway, the clown doctors have chosen April Fool’s Day as a day of fun-raising called Smile Day. The Humour Foundation is asking people on April 1 to sponsor clowns by donating money from their wages and becoming regular givers. The Humour Foundation has also just put together a book of stories about clown doctoring called Laughter is the Best Medicine in which clown doctors across the nation test re-pulses and check to see if people’s funny-bones are working properly.
If you’d like to donate and sponsor a clown, visit the website www.smileday.com.au. You can also find out more about the book at www.humour