Promoting healing with love and laughter

Western Edition San Francisco, 29 January 2012

San Francisco Medical Clown Project

By tapping into the healing power of laughter and using humor as a form of therapy, the Medical Clown Project of San Francisco helps patients, their families and staff members by entertaining them at several Bay Area hospitals on a weekly basis. Seven medical clowns work in front of tough audiences, but most of the time they leave with laughter and applause in their ears.

This nonprofit organization delivers medical clowning services to the California Pacific Medical Center – CPMC – including its Davies and St. Luke’s campuses, as well as at Kaiser Permanente Post Acute Care Center in San Leandro, Calif. The Medical Clown Project has also been invited to work at Laguna Honda Hospital and San Francisco General Hospital and is currently seeking funding to serve these hospitals as well. Therapeutic medical clowning at CPMC is a collaborative healing service of the Medical Clown Project and the Institute for Health and Healing at CPMC.

The Medical Clown Project attracts top clowns from throughout the country, with resumes that include big names such as Circus Finelli, Pickle Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil. This roster of multi-talented medical clowns all underwent extensive training in clowning and must possess a minimum of two years experience in order to qualify for participation in the Medical Clown Project.

Medical clowns work in pairs when they visit each medical facility in six-hour shifts, bringing their own unique clowning skills and disparate clown personalities to the job. Some are more adept at juggling, music, singing, storytelling and magic, for example, but all share an amazing ability to communicate with people of all ages and races. They’re always prepared to perform on the drop of a dime in elevators, nurses’ stations, hallways, waiting rooms and patients’ rooms. Their stage can change in a millisecond, so each medical clown has improvisational skills to use in a pinch.

The artistic director of the Medical Clown Project is Jeff Raz, a world-acclaimed clown, actor, writer, director and teacher who has performed many times with Cirque du Soleil, Pickle Family Circus, Lincoln Center and Berkeley Rep, to name just a few. Raz founded and directed The Clown Conservatory, the only professional school of its type in the country. He is the main force behind the Medical Clown Project, in conjunction with his wife, Sharon Sherman, PhD, who is the organization’s executive director. In conjunction with Ben Johnson – the head clown for the project – Raz and Sherman founded the Medical Clown Project in May 2010.

Raz knows that he and his medical clowns are making a significant difference every time they visit a hospital or clinic. He said, “It’s very satisfying on so many levels, because we’re able to see the positive results of what we’re doing every day. When we enter a unit and see the faces brighten up amongst the patients and the staff, it’s definitely fulfilling. Our team of medical clowns is an exceptional group and each is an amazing performer. What we all have in common is our passion for medical clowning and making a change.”

Raz is 100 percent sold on the power of laughter, and this is reinforced every time he visits a hospital. “We discovered at the inception that medical clowns are a big part of patient care in many hospitals across the country,” Raz said. “We know for a fact that laughter can enhance the healing process and provide ways for patients to reap the benefits. When people laugh, it relaxes their arteries and improves blood flow. It also reduces hypertension, while reducing things such as anxiety and depression. We also know that therapeutic medical clowning leads to patients who are more cooperative with the staff and other patients, and in many cases it can lead to a decreased need in patient sedation.”

Ben Johnson is Head Clown for the Medical Clown Project. With extensive clowning experience with the Big Apple Circus in New York City’s Clown Care Unit, Johnson brings all his skills and background to the Medical Clown Project. He works closely with all of the other clowns in the Project and helps to train new clowns entering the organization as well.

Johnson said that the medical clowns are on the floors performing for patients and staff on an average of four hours per shift, every week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a half-shift every other Thursday. He stated, “I work as often as I can for the Medical Clown Project, because I love the work. It is one of the few jobs where I can make an immediate impact on someone’s life, and it’s very powerful. It feels good to use your talents to help someone in a tough situation feeling better. It’s a collaborative effort with the hospital staff and the patient, because they define everything within each visit, including whether they want it to happen or not.”

Building alliances with hospital staff members makes being a medical clown even more meaningful, Johnson said. “We’ve been visiting the CPMC more than any of the other hospitals, so we’ve developed these great relationships there. When we come onto a floor, we receive a wonderfully warm response from both the staff and patients almost immediately. Their faces light up and they welcome us and make us feel like we belong there. It provides an environment where we can connect with patients and their families, and that’s an ideal situation.”

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