September 16, 2011 — They're not your usual hospital volunteers. Wearing neon wigs, glittering accessories and face paint, they wander the halls of the University of Virginia Children's Hospital, distributing a special kind of medicine. Clown medicine.
A group of eight volunteers from as far as Nelson County come every Tuesday evening to engage in "Compassionate Clowning" with young patients at the Medical Center. Several of these volunteers have come faithfully almost every week for the past three years, spreading cheer and distributing "clown medicine," or candy, to people in the hospital. All have been trained, interviewed and had background checks to make sure they are safe to visit the pediatric wards, or – if they are invited by a family – patients in other hospital wings.
Compassionate clowning provides comfort, care and emotional support to patients and family by creating an environment that promotes healing and alleviates anxiety and stress, explained Kim Garofalo, the U.Va. Children's Hospital volunteer coordinator. By entering the "magical clown world" for a few minutes, the patients can forget their illness or injury for a while.
A visit from a clown, Garofalo said, "can be something really fun for the child for the day. It's a visit that requires no pain."
A clown's presence can also sometimes help during simple procedures, added Patty Vaughn, whose nom de clown is "Gerty." The volunteers are occasionally called in to hold patients' attention while nurses go about their work. "When a child's been unhappy, we can be a good distraction," Vaughn said.
The clowns have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, with "magic" props, sticky bubbles, puppets, stickers and puns. Sometimes they make up songs about the children and sing for them. They've even picked up a few jokes from some of the older patients, who seem to like to figure out how the magic tricks work as well. Some patients just want someone to talk to, and the volunteers are there to listen.
Sometimes the volunteers encounter patients who are afraid of clowns. Latifa Kropf, or "Doctor Clown," said she and the other volunteers always ask "would you like a clown visit?" before entering a child's room and leave immediately if they sense the child is uncomfortable.
Even when a child doesn't want a visit, the clowns' presence in the hospital plays an important function.
"We try to empower the children," Joe Greenberg, a/k/a "Raggedy Andy," said. This means that in an environment where most choices are made for the patients, a child has the chance to say "yes" or "no," to participate or not according to what they want.
While patients come and go, the volunteers have an ongoing relationship with the staff members, who are always eager to get their dose of clown medicine. Every Tuesday evening, the wards fill with nurses doubled over in apparent pain, for which the only apparent cure is a shiny candy wrapper and a joke.
"The staff is very appreciative of us and support us, too," Greenberg said.
Hospital stays can be hard on the family of the patients. On elevators, the clowns often get requests from parents or relatives to visit their convalescing loved one. On one such occasion, the clowns said something encouraging to a woman in an elevator, who looked over, grinned and sighed, "Oh thank you, that is the first time I've smiled all day," Alegria Barbara Strauss ("Dr. Dotty") recounted. "That's what makes this all worthwhile."