© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Medical clowns offer hospital patients a dose of humor


Clowns remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. But it takes a professionally trained clown to lighten the mood in a hospital while being therapeutic. In a quiet hospital wing, some unlikely sounds float down the hallway: an accordion, a ukelele, and laughter. Luz Gaxiola and Molly Shannon make their daily rounds at the California Pacific Medical Center. They’re part of the Alameda based Medical Clown Project. They bring their unique type of therapy to ailing hospital patients in San Francisco area hospitals.

These clowns go where ever they’re most needed. Last year, Luz Gaxiola and Molly Shannon brought their act to a less traditional venue, a hospital. Right now, they’re getting ready for their rounds. Gaxiola opts for the classic clown look with a tiny red top hat and a big red nose. Shannon wears a white lab coat with sequins and a vintage nurses hat.

“I think the world takes itself too seriously,” she says. “Any time to infiltrate the normal world – have a little bit of fun in some kind of way. It’s sort of magical also.”

Before they go out on the floor, the clowns tune their instruments and agree on their schtick for the day.

“We’re doing the angle today that we’re getting our big break,” Gaxila says. “We heard there might be a producer or director.”

The clowns bounce into a busy waiting room where four preteens and their families sit and launch into their act.

“Well hello everybody. How ya doing? My name is Big Time. Dr. Big Time. We’re Big Time and Little Somethin’. We’re looking for our big break. We heard all you are Hollywood producers out here in California. We’re here for our audition. Maybe we should do the song?”

Jeff Raz is the Artistic Director of the Medical Clown Project. He’s tagging along on the rounds today.

“The main goal of the medical clown project is to lower stress in the ecosystem of the hospital,” Raz says. “Doctors, patients, house keepers, families, even the cab drivers. There’s no research to prove being more serious improves health; but there’s lots of research to prove laughter and humor reduce stress and improve healing and health. So that’s the axis we’re working on.”

The project started two years ago and currently has seven professional clowns.

Their clowning is paid through a grant that lets them to work in 15 units in 4 different hospitals in the Bay Area. All the clowns have toured with the likes of Circ du Soliel, Ringling Brothers, and the San Francisco women’s troop, Circus Finelli.

To become a hospital clown they go through training in how to interact with sick patients. That training’s highlighted in how the clowns approach each room on their rounds.

“They just knocked on the door and checked with the parent and got an okay,” Raz says. “They’re reading the room. What’s the energy of the room? What’s on the walls? Whats the sniff sniff smell of the room. We always get permission.”

No one wants to be a hospital patient. Medical staff come in and out of your room and give you unpleasant medications. You can’t even choose when or what you’ll eat. The clowns say their job is to give a patient an opportunity to control their environment.

A “No” is just as good as a “Yes” to the clowns because they gave the patient control.

In this case, the curtains are closed and the only sound in the room is the beep of machines. In the bed is a sleepy preschool aged boy with tubes taped to his arms. He lights up at the sight of the clowns. Shannon and Gaxiola sense the need for a softer interaction with the Tatman family – two parents and a small boy, Brody Tatman, who has leukemia.

Jeff Tatman, Brody’s father, praises the clowns. “This is the third time we’ve seen them now,” he says. “I always have a huge smile on my face. It’s good for the parents. They’re going through a rough time, too. They just made us laugh when he was asleep. Laughter is a healing process too. It helps you heal. In a different ways. It makes everything easier when you’re laughing.”

The California Pacific Medical Center fosters a number of alternative healing programs like qi gong, guided imagery, and musical performances through their Institute of Health and Healing. The clowns are a little different because of their consistent presence in the hospital. And Raz says the results are measurable.

“Sometimes our observations, the interactions that work, don’t work, can be very helpful to a nurse, child life specialist, the doctor,” says Raz. “And as we grow, now we’re exploring ways to put our observations into the charts.”

We’ve all heard “laughter is the best medicine.” But in a hospital, it can also bond health providers and their patients. A recent study from the New York State Nurses Association showed therapeutic play developed trust and soothed anxiety of both the patient and nurse.

The clowns are about to head to the ICU when they run into one of their biggest fans in the hallway – Rita Pozanova, a housekeeper who’s worked at the hospital for 14 years.

“I want they will be all the time here,” Pozanova says. “Don’t go home. Because we really need them. For our kids, this is for them like treatment. We really seriously need them.”

The clowns and Rita often do impromptu performances together. Today, it’s a Russian song.

You just have to be ready to pick up every offer that’s happening around and integrate it into the play,” Gaxiola says. “Because it’s really just about fostering a playful community atmosphere. So it’s really good to get a family or the medical staff or the patients to just play with you.”

Hospital clowns aren’t just for the kids. After lunch, the clowns finish the day in the Alzheimer’s units and then the skilled nursing facilities. The Medical Clown Project spends equal time brightening the day of adult patients.

“It’s just amazing making people happy that are in the hospital,” says Shannon. “I feel kinda cliché saying it, but it’s really true. It’s a great feeling have people in the hospital to have something from outside, from a different world.”

And so Shannon and Gaxiola will go on shimmying and bouncing through the hospital, spreading laughter and a little bit of joy as they go.