Doctors in Israel are beginning to believe in the power of clowning around.
Over the last few years, Israeli clowns have been popping into hospital operating rooms and intensive care units with balloons and kazoos in hand, teaming up with doctors to develop laughter therapies they say help with disorders ranging from pain to infertility.
This is not how things are done in most of the world’s hospitals. Clowns often visit pediatric wards to cheer up young patients, but in most places the clowning ends where the medicine begins. When it comes time for a child to get a shot or go under the knife, the clowns step aside.
Israeli clowns thumb their shiny red noses at that approach. They quote studies which suggest that a clown’s participation in treatments can help patients — especially kids — endure painful procedures and speed their healing.
They say it is time for the medical community to recognize medical clowns as legitimate paramedical practitioners, like occupational or physical therapists.
Israel’s hospital clowning guild, Dream Doctors, founded 10 years ago, is the leading advocate for infusing more medicine into the artistry.
“It’s not just putting on a red nose, floppy shoes, and playing a ukulele,” said Arthur Eidelman, recently retired chief of pediatrics at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and chair of the Dream Doctors’ scientific committee. “We see medical clowns as an integral part of the health care team.”
Over the past few decades, dozens of hospital clown guilds have formed in the US, Canada and Europe, drawing inspiration from New York’s Big Apple Circus, which pioneered the first professional hospital clowning program and from a 1998 hit movie starring Robin Williams as real-life hospital clown Hunter “Patch” Adams.
The idea behind these initiatives is that clowns in simple costumes — no caked-on makeup or squirting flowers — can parody the role of the doctor, making the hospital a less scary place for patients.
On a recent morning at the Jerusalem medical center, one such clown cut short his coffee break when a nurse called to say a boy was being wheeled into surgery to fix a ruptured eardrum.
Dr. Sababa — which translates to Dr. Groovy — rushed up the stairwell into pre-op, greeting Aaron Marziano, 13. They had met earlier that morning in the pediatric ward, where he had performed imaginary surgery on the boy’s ear with a long kazoo.
“What’s your favorite dream?” the clown asked Marziano among a group of nurses, prepping him before sedation.
He quickly put nets on his floppy green shoes, threw on blue scrubs and helped wheel Marziano into the theater. The clown, not the anesthesiologist, placed the anesthesia mask over the boy’s face.
“Eight years ago, going in the operating room was science fiction,” said Dr. Sababa, who answers to his real name, Avi Cohen, when he is out of his polka-dot necktie and grapefruit vest.
Today, he estimated, a clown is present at about one out of five of the hospital’s full anesthesia surgeries for children. A study led by doctors there found that a clown’s presence in pre-op reduces the amount of anesthesia administered and speeds up a patient’s recovery time.
It is one of a half a dozen studies the clowns and their physician advocates have conducted in recent years, a campaign to prove to the medical community that their therapies are working.