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Laughter is the best medicine

by Lou Pollard
01 April 2013
Humour cannot be bottled for consumption but it can have great power. I believe there is truth in the saying ‘laughter is better than medicine’. As a Clown Doctor, I deliver doses of humour to help relieve fear in high- pressure situations, distracting seriously ill children going through difficult medical procedures in hospitals across Australia.

Clown DoctorsTM work with the possibility of introducing play at any moment in any hospital setting, whether their patients are in the emergency department, ICU or on trolleys beside paramedics.

One day my Clown Doctor partner, Dr P Brain, and I were paged to help a patient in the emergency department. A young boy who had been operated on a year before in the same hospital, he remembered that the nurses and doctors had left him in a lot of pain. He was having none of it. As we got out of the lift we could hear his piercing screams all the way down the hall. We rushed in and a nurse said, "Over to you guys." We calmed him down with a song and then a doctor walked in and the poor kid started screaming again.

We tried all our silly shtick, magic tricks, balloons and lots of terrible jokes. He was silent for a few minutes then he started screaming again. He wanted out. The ward was full of nil-by-mouth patients and anxious parents. The decision was made to take him to theatre. With bubbles and song we accompanied him down the corridor on the way to his operation. We got a slight smile and nervous laughs from his parents when we asked, "What’s on at the theatre? Is it Mary Poppins?" but as he was wheeled into the pre-op waiting bay his screaming intensified. As a nurse walked in to check his chart, I had a light bulb moment.

"See those people with the funny things on their heads?" I whispered.

He nodded at the nurse and the anaesthetist who had come in wearing theatre scrubs.

"They’ve got their undies on their heads, don’t stare at them."

With that, he laughed.

"Don’t laugh, it’s really embarrassing for them."

Every time a member of the operating theatre staff came in, he giggled. Dr P Brain and his parents looked at me as if to say, "Good one, but I want in on the joke." I shook my head and looked at the boy.

"It’s our secret," I said and he smiled.

Shortly after that, the nurse who had accompanied him on the long journey from the other end of the hospital, winked at me and said, "Thanks, whatever you did worked," and walked away. After a couple of fart jokes, he was wheeled into theatre.

His mother smiled and said, "I don’t know what you said. Thank you so much. We appreciate you calming him. I’d love to know what you told him."

"I’m sorry," I said. "I can’t breach patient-doctor confidentiality by telling you."

His dad laughed.
International research has found real physiological and psychological benefits; a dose of humour helps the immune system.

Laughter is a pick-me-up in hospitals, reducing anxiety and increasing our capacity to deal with stress by stimulating the reward centre in our brain. International research has found real physiological and psychological benefits; a dose of humour helps the immune system. Happy people are healthier.

We practise open-heart humour; our core values are kindness and compassion. As humour therapists, we work inside the health system and yet we are not part of the health system. We don’t wear much make up, we aren’t scary clowns; and we are usually the butt of the joke. Like our hospital partners, we want the best outcomes for the child. We also believe there is nothing wrong with leaving our patients in stitches.

Our work assumes a high level of sensitivity between our fellow fools and the children we meet. We are told only what we need to know; we don’t need information about the child’s ill health; our work totally affirms capability and possibility in the child. We must finely tune our performance to the needs of that particular family, often in very dark moments. We may be silly but we’re not stupid. Clown Doctors can act like the village idiot and still be taken seriously.

In my seventh year of clown doctoring, I realise I am very lucky to have a job that gives me a chance to give back to my community. I’ve met and laughed with so many fabulous families that I am reminded daily of what is important in life.

Lou Pollard is the Sydney Clown Doctor Team Coordinator for The Humour Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting the health benefits of humour. Lou brightens the lives of very sick children at three Sydney hospitals and at Bear Cottage, a palliative and respite care centre for kids.