photo Hearts and Noses Navigation

Baystate Medical Center Gets Serious
About Clowning Around

By Bob Datz

The following article appeared in The Republican on April 16, 2008 Springfield, MA

They're doing some pretty serious clowning at Baystate Medical Center.

In the footsteps of "Patch" Adams, the bedside clown and physician made famous in a 1988 movie starring Robin Williams, volunteers from all walks of life attended two daylong training sessions on hospital clowning at the hospital's Holyoke conference center in early spring. By fall they'll brighten up the pediatric wards and children's eyes.

Amid the galaxy of polka dots and frequent laughter, there was a flip chart and some stern expressions during training focused on comforting sick and injured children and adolescents.

These clowns won't be unpiling from tiny cars or turning flips off trampolines, but instead have learned the performance art of lifting gently from the heart. The 19 volunteers worked with veteran hospital clowns from Eastern Massachusetts and are continuing to meet monthly to master the discipline.

"The most surprising thing is how much work it takes," said Linda Kelly, of Wilbraham, a part-time hospital chaplain who will put in volunteer hours clowning and mentoring the other volunteers. "You don't just show up in a costume."

The instructors complimented participants for little things during role-playing exercises with imaginary child patients and hospital rooms, like the way they left the room when intuition told them it was time to go.

"When you're leaving, you're backing away and you're still connected, which is wonderful," said Cheryl Lekousi, of Needham. "The feeling the child gets (from you) is, 'I can't leave; you're just so wonderful.' It's love-love-love-love love-love-love-love-love, and you'll feel it."

A few of the volunteers are employees in the Baystate system; others are retirees or have occupations ranging from grad student to building contractor. Some have already adopted character names such as "Buz" and "Glitterbug."

In their role-playing, they approached an imaginary hospital bed gently. There may be grieving parents, medical professionals at work or a down-and-out patient awaiting them on the pediatric ward. Or a second family in the same hospital room may be having a particularly difficult time even if a welcoming child is not. So hospital clowns were told of the challenges of staying upbeat in tough environments.

Among the most professionally costumed volunteers was "Nit Wit," otherwise known as James P. Allard, of Warren. He's an eight-year veteran of public clowning with a Shriner's unit but was moved by his own daughter's disabling condition to learn the gentler way of hospital clowning.

Aileen M. Caggiano, of Ware, works as an ambulance dispatcher but said she's always been one to don clown garb on Halloween. So like many recruits, she was channeling existing strands of herself into a new way of helping people.

"It's all about empowering the kids; it's not about entertaining," she said, "and that's what drew me to it."

"It's life-changing, actually," said Lekousi, a special-needs day care provider who participates as "Tic Toc" with the Hearts and Noses Hospital Clown Troupe in three Boston-area hospitals. She said Baystate's program is the first she knows of farther west in the state.

It was the real "Patch" Adams, rather than the movie version, that inspired the clowning movement that will roll into the pediatric unit beginning this fall, and perhaps later in adult wards. Adams' visit to the Springfield hospital in 2006 led to a committee to create the program here. It was launched with help from a Wilbur Foundation grant and publicized through hospital newsletters, the Rev. Martin Montonye, manager of Social & Spiritual Services, said.

The recent training drew the interest of about 50 people, Montonye said - more than twice the capacity for this round of workshops. Montonye can cite benefits of such programs to patient well-being and even immune systems. But the immediate up side is more easily explained.

"It just brings a nice feeling to folks," Montonye said. "They just smile and laugh when they see a clown."