The clowns at Boston Children’s Hospital are not garish, over-the-top, frightening-to-kids kind of clowns. They are from Boston, after all. There’s a bit of Brahmin in these likable buffoons. They know how to woo, as well as wow.
And that’s exactly what they do five days a week. There are 19 clowns, all members of the the Big Apple Circus community outreach Clown Care program. Two of them, every weekday, make their way from a closet-size office, where they swap conservative street clothes for neon bright tights and where they become clowns for the next six hours: doctors for the soul. These clown doctors frolic through the lobby, up to the kids’ rooms, or over to intensive care, or the emergency room, singing songs, blowing bubbles, walking into walls — all to bring a little lightheartedness to children and families whose lives are anything but lighthearted.
The clowns not only make sick children giggle, they also make worried parents smile, reach for cellphones and take photos.
Some kids stare at the clowns. Some reach out and touch them. Some can’t reach out, and just listen as the clowns clown and sing. Some of the children are wide-eyed. Some back away. It’s different with every child. And it’s different every day.
Dr. Dazzle (aka Meryl Galaid) and Dr. Mal Adjusted (Mal Malme) are the clowns on duty on a recent weekday. They have a list of children to see. They know before they knock on a door if a child is in isolation or intensive care, or if a child can’t see or hear, walk or talk, or understand English.
Their list is full but they don’t rush. They are on kid time. They dillydally in the lobby. They saunter and sway. They twirl and trip. Dr. Mal Adjusted almost falls, and kids, parents and hospital staff, see this and grin.
The clowns give kids their space. Children have no control when they are in a hospital — procedures, pills, tests, more tests, the children can’t say no. The clowns are a choice. Stay or go, the children can say. Now or later.
The clowns approach a room on their list. The door is closed, and the blinds are shut. A grown-up shouts, “Come in,” so they open the door a little. But a small voice says “No,” so the clowns remain outside. Dr. Dazzle sings in a soft voice, “You Are My Sunshine,” as she walks away.” “Silly, silly clowns” the child says.
In the next room, a 4-year-old sits in his bed. The clowns play hide-and-seek with him. Dr. Dazzle hides. Dr. Mal Adjusted seeks. The boy is attached to tubes and monitors. He helps Dr. Mal Adjusted count to 10. “Four, five, six,” he tells Dr. Mal Adjusted over and over. But Dr. Mal Adjusted can’t get it right. He keeps making mistakes. He keeps saying, “Four, five, seven.” Or “Four, five, nine.” And every time he misses, the boy laughs harder.
Sometimes the clowns get asked to help a child walk or bend or reach for something, because it’s easier for a clown to coax a child out of bed than it is for a therapist. A clown will starts singing and blowing bubbles and rolling beach balls and a child is up and walking and smiling and it’s not therapy any more. It’s play.
Sometimes the clowns play peek-a-boo, a game every child knows. Sometimes it’s just Dr. Dazzle’s hot pink tutu, orange tights, pink and green socks, and shiny silver shoes that make a child smile. Or the ukulele she strums. Or the bubbles she blows.
Sometimes the clowns are quiet. Sometimes it’s a clown standing outside an isolation room and singing a song that makes a difference.
Charlotte Rose Kelly was 4 years old and in isolation when Dr. Dazzle stood at her door and sang “Part of Your World,” from “The Little Mermaid.” Charlotte’s mother, Patrice, remembers the moment well because that was all Charlotte wanted, to be out of isolation, to be part of the world again.
Dr. Dazzle remembers, too. Charlotte did not get well, but that song from a movie she so loved calmed her.
How do the clowns know when to reach out to a child and when to hold back? When to knock on a closed door and when to keep walking?
They are professional performers. They have been trained in hospital protocol and they continue to learn. They attend workshops. Dr. Dazzle has been clowning for nine years, Dr. Mal Adjusted for 20. “We don’t go into a room to make people laugh,” Dr. Mal Adjusted says. “We go in to connect with them. And if laughter comes out that’s great but sometimes it’s just a conversation.”
“Sometimes we just hug the mom and not even talk,” Dr. Dazzle adds.
April 1 is the 20th anniversary of Clown Care at Boston Children’s Hospital. Begun in New York City in 1986, 16 US pediatric facilities now host the program. A celebration will be held for patients and their families.
“Kids are the strongest people I know,” says Dr. Mal Adjusted. “They’re kids and they’re supposed to be playing and laughing. It’s playing and joy and laughter that bring us back to the people we really are.”