Israel’s medical clowns are part of the country’s therapeutic process, including during the coronavirus pandemic.
By Tsivya Fox-Dobuler
Israel is a world leader in medical clowning, and the activity continues despite the corona pandemic.
The country has nearly 600 medical clowns from two top medical clown organizations, Dream Doctors and Simchat HaLev (Happiness of the Heart), working in about 30 health facilities across the country.
“Under normal circumstances, medical clowns lighten the mood of people by putting a bit of chaos into normally rigid medical situations and institutions and stretching regulations, within boundaries, to bring people joy and laughter,” Shoshi Ofir, who works as a medical clown in Israel’s northern hospitals of Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Poriya and Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat, told United with Israel (UWI). “However, coronavirus has brought so much chaos into our lives that our job now is to provide a sense of order.
“We encourage following the rules through humor and creativity and try to calm the chaos people are feeling within themselves.”
Medical clowns have been part of Israel’s therapeutic treatment for nearly two decades, making it easier for medical staff to do their job.
Nimrod Eisenberg, who has been a medical clown at Dana-Dwek Children’s Hospital in Tel Aviv since 2003 and manages projects for Dream Doctors, said that medical clowning was developed especially for trying times.
“There is no shortage of trauma in Israel, and coronavirus is included in that,” Eisenberg told UWI. “The job of medical clowning is to provide emotional support in times of crisis by inspiring people to get in touch with their inner resources of strength, joy and hope. We use an array of tools, including creative play, imagination, body language, vocal expression, dramatic arts, comedy, mishaps and the ability to laugh at oneself to lighten things up.
“We know human energy and interaction can be a positive thing and that people have the wonderful ability to heal and support each other,” he said.
Raising Spirits and Morale
The need to raise the spirits of medical staff, patients, children and the elderly during the coronavirus pandemic has led Israel’s medical clowns into new territory as they continue to develop unique ways to ease emotional stress.
Most medical clowns have a background in theater, drama, and the arts. Under normal circumstances, they rely on facial expressions to show emotion. However, as everyone must wear a mask due to coronavirus regulations, the clowns now use dramatic hand and body movements to communicate.
“Wearing a mask is a bit like amputating a part of one’s face, so we had to think out-of-the-box to show what we wanted to express,” Ofir said. “My husband works in the printing industry. To decorate our masks, I had him print on stickers smiles with a tooth missing or a gold tooth, a small mouth with a mustache and various silly expressions. The female clowns especially like to wear the mustache smiles. After all, beauty salons are closed.”
These fun stickers have also been distributed to hospital staff to place on their own masks in order to increase laughter and reduce stress.
Ofir, whose clown name in Hebrew is Dr. Hearta, which means Dr. Nonsense, told UWI, “Corona makes people very tired and those afflicted sleep a lot. However, medically it is better for them to get up and move as much as possible.
“A doctor on the coronavirus ward asked us to see if we could encourage the patients to move. It was announced on the loudspeaker that a gym lesson was being given and patients were encouraged to get up.
“I suddenly found myself giving a gym lesson. I’d never done that before. The doctor told us that with all the reasons he has to wake a corona patient, this one was the best.”
The Challenge of Social Distance and Entertainment
During the coronavirus crisis, Israel’s medical clowns are also tasked with lifting the spirits of tired and emotionally drained medical staff, providing staff children with entertainment while schools are closed, finding ways to boost the morale of homebound elderly and visiting old age homes, where they perform outside. They must also reach patients in quarantine through video calls and different kinds of online platforms, or mime through thick hospital glass to reach patients.
“I work in pediatric oncology and have developed relationships for years with many children who I can no longer see in person for fear of exposing them to the virus,” Eisenberg said. “We go outside of their homes now and make meetings over the phone or social media platforms to make them laugh about the situation.”
Though medical clowns generally do not touch patients or staff, they often perform tricks that involve passing colorful handkerchiefs or flowers or taking funny selfies with those they are entertaining. Under coronavirus regulations, however, they must stay at least two meters away from others, which has radically changed how they work.
“We want to entertain as well as educate and help,” Ofir explained. “We act hysterical if someone comes too close in order to remind people of the regulations. We’ll do an act to emphasize how to keep social distance. How do people know what a two-meter distance is? Is two meters the same distance as a 100 NIS bill? There’s so much confusion with following the rules that although we make fun out of it, it helps to encourage people to follow them.”
According to Zvi Meir, founder of Simchat HaLev, “Modern medicine takes good care of the physical aspect, but our mental side does not always get the support it needs.” Israel’s medical clowns are filling that void.
“It’s a big mitzvah to be joyful,” Meir adds.