Laughter the best medicine for kids
THERE are times when clown doctor Lou Pollard, aka Dr Quack, must dig deep to find silliness amid so much sadness.
Such as when her pintsized fans invite her to their funerals or have been so badly injured that they can only laugh with their eyes.
“Sometimes you sit in the car park and think: ‘I can’t do this anymore’,” she said.
“And then you have a magical moment with a kid who laughs their head off because you bump into a door, or a grandma says: ‘Thank you, we were having such a dark day’, and you think: ‘This is beautiful.’” Ms Pollard is not a real doctor but the medicine she administers to sick kids is potent.
Laughter relaxes not only the little patients but also the families overwhelmed by worry.
“There are all these adults staring at them, you can cut the air with a knife, the fear and stress is so great,” she said.
“Sometimes you have to relieve that pressure and go: ‘OK, right here in this moment, we can laugh and giggle and dance.’
“There’s nothing more beautiful than getting a dad to sing along or dance like a gangster — it’s beautiful seeing families have fun. The kids see their parents so stressed, so when they see their parents having a laugh, they are relieved.”
Clown Doctors, run by the Humour Foundation, have been cheering up sick Australian kids for 20 years. The foundation was inspired by the US clown doctor Hunter “Patch” Adams, whose work was made into a film starring Robin Williams.
These days there are more than 60 clown doctors working across every major children’s hospital in Australia, including Bear Cottage, the palliative care hospice for children in Sydney. They are funded by donations.
One of their biggest fans is Belle Camilleri, aged eight, w who has been visiting The Children’s Hospital at Westmead since she was run over by a truck and paralysed w when she was three years old.
Belle hates going to hospit tal but loves the clown doctors because “they make me laugh, so I’m not sad any more. I make them kick the door and bump into stuff. One time Stinky (the clown) pretended to do a poo.”
As she says this, Belle diss solves into giggles.
Lou Pollard is a stand-up c comedian but has been a clown doctor for more than 10 years. On one of her first s shifts, she performed for an eight-month-old undergoing chemotherapy.
“I thought: ‘This is so w wrong, I can’t cope’,” she
said. “I was bawling in the car on the way home. My next shift was with a female clown doctor. She said: ‘That family needs you more now than ever. If you can bring sunshine into their life for 20 minutes, you have to do it — how can you not?’ It was such a beautiful piece of advice.”
During a shift, Ms Pollard might sing a song for a baby, dance with a doctor, or just blow bubbles for a burns victim who is too sick for anything more.
Success is when a child is so absorbed, they don’t notice the needle being slipped into their arm or the nurse taking their blood pressure.
Once she helped kids in the cancer ward build a toilet paper fence that the nurses were only allowed to cross if they sang a song.
“The kids were in charge,” she said. “I was helping them take back the power and use their imagination. It’s about taking them into a world of fun, far away from the awful things that are happening.”
Sometimes it’s the family that needs cheering up.
“The nurses might say: ‘The kid is doing fine, but grandpa is really depressed’,” she said. “We are there for the families as well.”
The clowns work in pairs, not only to bounce off each other but to support each other, too.
“Kids have asked us to go to their funerals,” she
said. “It is really necessary for us to debrief. Two weeks ago, we were playing with that child, and now they are gone.
“We have kids that are paralysed. You try a little fart joke, and they blink once for yes (they liked it). I have to block out that part of my head that is thinking: ‘That’s so horrific.’ We see so much pain but also so much joy.”
There is a rigorous audition process for the job and many entertainers fail the test.
“Most performers get into performing because of their ego — they want to be the star,” Ms Pollard said. “Our work is not about that. It’s about making the kids the stars of the show.”
One of Dr Quack’s frequent partners is Dr I Don’t Know, aka Curly Fernandez.
“I have lots of other jobs,” he said. “This for me is the most special job that I have.
“To see them smile and laugh, and to see parents and staff really happy, and to change a whole atmosphere of the hospital so it feels there’s a bit of shimmer around — no words can describe it.”
Curly Fernandez hams it up as Dr I Don’t Know with Emelia Scandur a.
Curly Fernandez and Lou Pollard are Clown Doctors at The
Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Pictures: Sam Ruttyn
Lou Pollard working as Dr Quack the Clown Doctor. Curly and Lou with Belle Camilleri.