Real Life

Send in the clowns

Don’t let the white coats fool you – the red noses give it away. Dr Cracker and Dr Pick-Me-Up are Clown Doctors, professionals paid to perk patients up in hospital.

Sporting tartan pants and star-covered Converses, Dr Cracker attempts to engage her young audience at Auckland’s Starship children’s hospital in a game of cricket using a pink shoehorn for a bat and a doll for a ball. Meanwhile, her offsider, Dr Pick-Me-Up, vies for attention by chucking toys at them.
Don’t let the white coats fool you – the red noses give it away. Dr Cracker and Dr Pick-Me-Up are Clown Doctors, professionals paid to perk patients up. And the youngsters they’re entertaining are completely rapt.
Clown Doctors have been proving the adage about laughter being the best medicine for more than 30 years (scientific research has shown laughter can strengthen the immune system, increase feel-good endorphins and have anti-inflammatory and stress-reducing effects).
The first New Zealand chapter opened in 2009. Now there are 32 Clown Doctors nationwide, working the children’s wards in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, plus a fortnightly gig with geriatric patients at Princess Margaret Hospital in Cashmere. But they’re not just in it for laughs. Training sessions are held every six weeks, and most are studying towards qualifications from the International Institute of Medical Clowning through the Steinbeis University in Berlin.
At the start of their four-hour shift, Clown Doctors don’t just barge on in with a barrel of tricks. After they’ve been briefed on the clients – ages, who’s in isolation, whether there’s a birthday, any family issues – their act starts in the corridor, where they’ll hover at the doorway to suss out if patients within are receptive to their presence.
“Essentially you want to change the atmosphere – distract them, make them smile, get a laugh,” says “Dr Cracker” – Clown Doctor NZ’s artistic director, Zack McCracken, a former nurse herself.
Clown Doctors Ruth Dudding (left) and Zack McCracken entertain Isabella Powell, 11, Sia Fernandez Macdonald, two, and Mika Smith Anderson, three, at Auckland’s Starship children’s hospital.
It’s exhausting work, says Ruth Dudding (Dr Pick-Me-Up), a video producer and creative arts tutor at Manukau Institute of Technology. “Partly because it’s improv, and partly because you’re testing the waters the whole time.”
Teenagers are their toughest clients, but McCracken’s warbling of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” made one patient crack his first smile in a week. His mum was relieved, too. And that’s the thing; it’s not always about the kids. A couple anxiously waiting for their child to return from the operating theatre were happily distracted by the doolally duo.
And McCracken recalls softly singing a lullaby to a mum and her newborn from the doorway of their room. “She started to cry and cry and whispered, ‘Thank you.’ So sometimes it’s about releasing that emotion; giving people permission to breathe a sigh of relief.”
In the United States and Europe, the service is so well established Clowns Doctors even accompany children into theatre. For McCracken and Dudding – actors who trained at the same drama school in Paris and are now both in their early 50s – the rewards have been immeasurable.
Surveys conducted by the Starship Foundation show it also cheers medical staff. McCracken says a Wellington nurse who’d initially resented having Clown Doctors on her ward admitted she couldn’t believe the difference it makes – “that it gives sick kids an opportunity to have a childhood”.
The Starship Foundation needs to raise $150,000 a year to cover three shifts a week by the Auckland Clown Doctors. To support their work, visit starship.org.nz/donate
Photos: Adrian Malloch