Clowns on call

Hospital patients are served smiles by Caring Clowns, volunteers who also offer a hand to squeeze and a listening ear.

Posted: August 22, 2012

Ken Adelberger was sitting in a hospital gown awaiting his surgery when three doctors in white coats approached him.

"We're just on our merry-go-rounds," Dr. HuggaBubbe said to him, twirling in a circle.

"I can do a cat scan," said Dr. Bea Well, holding up a stuffed cat.

Dr. CurlyBubbe handed him a smiley-face sticker and told him to give it to his surgeon to get him in a good mood for the procedure.

Adelberger would see several physicians at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood that day, but these three were probably the only ones he asked for a hug.

Dr. HuggaBubbe, Dr. Bea Well, and Dr. CurlyBubbe are clowns, part of a brigade of more than 100 colorfully costumed volunteers, most of them retirees, who visit hospital patients under the umbrella of the Bumper "T" Caring Clowns organization.

The Caring Clowns, who got their start in Camden's Cooper University Hospital and now operate in 27 hospitals in six states, with an emphasis in Philadelphia and South Jersey, treat hospital clowning as serious business.  

Patients might not always feel up to a song-and-dance routine or a magic trick, these clowns say, so they come in without a canned shtick. Instead, they offer a friendly smile, a hand to squeeze, and a listening ear.

It all depends on the situation. Sometimes, frank talk about a patient's condition is in order. Other times, it's a "nose transplant" - giving a patient a red foam nose while boisterously singing, "Getting to nose you / Getting to nose all about you," à la The King and I.

Or what's needed is a funny bone test: listening to a patient's elbow with a big rubber ear while squeezing a hidden button to elicit a giggling noise.

Dr. CurlyBubbe might turn around to show the teddy bear pinned to her bottom, exposing her "bear behind." Or Dr. Bea Well might pull from her pocket a plastic three-legged chair in a medical container - her "stool sample."

Makeup is understated: some white around the eyes, pink cheeks, cherry lipstick, small red flowers on their noses, no wigs. Their base costume is the white doctor's coat, covered with dozens of colorful buttons and embroidered with their clown names and specialties. (Dr. HuggaBubbe is a hug specialist, while Dr. Bea Well practices a slightly different branch of medicine as a hugologist.)

The buttons bear nutty slogans like "Take my advice. I'm not using it," "Young at heart, slightly older in other places," "Out of my mind, back in five minutes," and "Growing older is mandatory. Growing up is optional."

To qualify for Caring Clowns, which has been a registered nonprofit for 10 years, volunteers must go through a strict training regimen.

They shadow clowns in hospitals for about three months, holding smile stickers and observing the challenges of cheering up sick people. If applicants still think the job is for them, they attend classes run by experienced clowns.

Show too much flair for the comedic and not enough sensitivity to the patient, and you might be turned away. Even experienced party clowns have been denied a spot on the Bumper "T" roster. But if you pass, you graduate - to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance" played by a teddy bear - and you get your first five silly buttons.

The training prepares clowns, veterans say, for the rough patches that arise every day in a hospital setting.

Recently, Dr. Bea Well - also known as Marilyn Bamash - visited a 38-year-old man and his wife. He had just received a grim prognosis.

"What can you say? You can't say everything's going to be OK," Bamash said. "I didn't say anything. I just held his hand and I hugged him. It's amazing how these little things, people really appreciate."

Dr. HuggaBubbe - vice president of Caring Clowns (she also goes by Aviva Gorstein) - said, "The hardest thing for us is to know that we can't change anything. But we have a moment."

That moment of levity or solace can last long after the clowns leave the room. Gorstein spoke of one man with a terminal diagnosis. He was delighted to receive a red nose. A lifelong joker himself who liked nothing better than making someone crack a grin, he wore his new nose in the hallways of the hospital - and the hospice where he moved later - to help fellow patients smile.

He told his wife to bury him with the nose on.

At his open-casket funeral, weeping guests in the back of the viewing line broke into laughter when they reached the front and saw his face.

His daughter found Gorstein after the funeral.

"You allowed him to do what he loved best, even after death," she said. And she asked for a second red nose for her mother.

Laurie Watson, Lankenau's director of volunteer services, told of a clown who gave a man a smiley-face sticker when he was hospitalized. After his death, his widow affixed it to her mirror so she would see it each morning.

" 'That's my husband, smiling down at me. I think of a time when we could smile and laugh,' " she said to Watson.

Watson added, "He had great doctors and nurses, but two years later, that's what they remember, that little bit of a reprieve."

Most of the Caring Clowns are retirees, and many come to the organization with long records of service. Dr. CurlyBubbe - Caring Clowns' president, Esther Gushner - has served as president of the Federation of Jewish Agencies in Atlantic County and of the Ruth Newman Shapiro Cancer and Heart Fund and as chair of museum docents at Penn. Gorstein was head of volunteers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Bamash taught technology in the School District of Philadelphia.

Now, they speak of clowning as a calling. Bamash said that when a surgery of her own kept her out of her clown coat for six weeks, "I was absolutely lost." Gorstein said of Caring Clowns simply, "When something enters your life, you know that it's perfect."

The clowns are in such demand in the hospital that Gushner recalls getting on a hospital elevator and hearing, "They need a clown. They've been calling for a clown in the ICU."

The popularity of this group springs not from their colorful scrubs or oversize shoes, Gorstein says. They stand out in a hospital setting because they focus on patients rather than their medical charts.

"When we come in, it's all about the patient," she said. "I look at the person behind all of the tubes or the medicines or the monitors. ... I don't see that anymore. I see the eyes, I see the person, and I see their yearning to smile."


Contact Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-5289 or jzauzmer@philly.com.

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