What do you get when a clown, a clinical psychologist, and a patient walk into a hospital? You get something called the Medical Clown Project. This Bay Area non-profit that sends clowns to hospitals, emergency rooms, and retirement homes. In this installment of our @WORK series, we meet a medical clown.
It’s not that unusual of an idea. There are health care clowning organizations around the world, such as the Dream Doctors in Israel and the Clown Care Unit in New York. Eleven years ago in the Bay Area, a clinical psychologist and her husband, a clown, were inspired by a growing field of research that showed that medical clowning interventions improved patient outcomes, and started the Medical Clown Project.
Before COVID, the Medical Clown Project dispatched clowns to emergency rooms, pediatric wards, and assisted living locations. While the shelter-in-place order has changed how they work, it certainly hasn’t stopped them.
Calvin Kai Ku is one of these medical clowns, and below is a transcript from our interview. Click the play button above to listen.
CALVIN KAI KU: When I was in college, I studied computer engineering. I just wasn't happy in that field and decided to make a pivot to theater. I got inspired by one of my teachers, who brought clowning to the college. After that, I was hooked. I went to the [San Francisco] Clown Conservatory and got to spend a year studying clowning.
When I was asked if I could use my clowning skills to help people with their needs and lift up their spirits, I knew right away that that's something I had to do. My mom was a nurse, and it was a little bit like an homage to her to be like, hey, I want to get into health care too and this is my own special way.
So if we were to go into a room, we get a briefing of what's going on with each patient. Medically we get some information or even psychologically how they're feeling. So then we can go into that space knowingly and prescribing a certain healthcare clowning intervention.
Whether it's, oh, this person needs to relax, this person is in a lot of pain, probably moving around is not good for this person. So let's play this nice ukulele song to make them just want to escape into this peaceful, peaceful world of white sandy beaches, palm trees, blue skies, and a nice breeze on their face.
I remember a time when we were visiting a unit, it was a memory care unit. And there was a patient there who never really spoke, her decline in terms of dementia has just really, really progressed.
We were doing our show, and you can just hear her walker just kind of scraping on the floor as she's going and she arrives into the space, and then we get down on our knees and we go:
“The queen is here! Oh, our glorious, glorious queen!”
And we gently put our hand on her shoulder, we got in close, and we said, “Our queen, we love you, our queen”
And at that moment, the staff, they were so surprised, because they had never seen her smile before. When we have those experiences, we know that the work that we're doing is so effective.
Right now, there's actually a lot of studies on healthcare clowning and the benefits. A lot of the research that has been done is mostly through the Dream Doctors in Israel. They had a group that did not have clowning and one that did have clowning, and it was remarkable to see the results that those who had clowning felt so much more comfortable going into surgery than those who did not.
About a year ago, we started having our healthcare clowning interventions be charted on the patient's charts, which has been really, really cool. Because that then hopefully leads to some additional research that may lead to the integration of this work.
Since shelter in place, we have stopped going in person. So we started with the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living to create a virtual experience with their residents. As the weeks went on and on, an amazing thing started happening. The residents started getting excited about it.
There are always going to be patients who are going to be in isolation, who are going to be quarantined for whatever illness they may have, and we can now reach them. We don't have to leave them out. So this whole experience has inspired us to expand our program and become more inclusive and accessible to others.
After we had finished a shift and we were just checking in with each of the residents one of the residents started talking about how much she was so thankful about being able to smile and being able to laugh:
“There’s a song that says when you’re smiling, keep us smiling, the whole world smiles with you, when you’re laughing, when you’re laughing, the whole world laughs with you.”
I believe health care clowning and the practice of joy is essential, right now especially. And we need a way to express ourselves. And we need to know how to get to the light, the joy, the laughter, the fun, the playfulness, the levity, the buoyancy, the resilience, that - that's why our work, and this work is essential.
To learn more about the Medical Clown Project, visit their website at medicalclownproject.org.