by Mike Kepka, SF Chronicle, 15 January 2012
A recent Tuesday at 12:20 p.m.:
With their accordion and juggling balls ready, Luz Gaxiola and Ben Johnson popped their heads into a curtained corner of the pediatrics intensive care unit. The room loosened with laughter when Luz started banging out nonsensical melodies on her squeezebox. Her partner joined the fun with a set of absurd rap lyrics. Darren Lessi’s daughter Taryn, 12, gave a thumbs-up to the comedic duo from the hospital bed where she lies attached to a web of tubes and cords.
“That’s the biggest smile I’ve seen on her since we’ve been here,” Lessi said.
Gaxiola and Johnson are part of an elite team of seven professional clowns working with the Medical Clown Project in collaboration with the Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Medical Center. A recent funding grant from the CPMC Foundation earned them the responsibility of wearing hospital badges that say “Medical Clown.” The paid gig is a rarity in this country, where volunteer clowning is rampant, and the medical clowns hope to keep their type of therapy going as long as possible. “We show up in places that are usually pretty serious … and suddenly the whole energy of the place is transformed,” Gaxiola said. Bobbing and weaving through the halls with big shoes and tiny hats, they’ve learned to be masters at reading situations. Like any other member of a medical team it’s their job to anticipate patients’ needs. Sometimes instead of jokes and a song, a patient needs honest conversation and a warm hand to hold. “The goal is to make change and hopefully that change lasts when we leave for the day,” Johnson said.