No joke: Medical clowning spreads smiles to hospital patients around the world

Aviyah Rosenwasser and Corrine Malach volunteer as medical clowns. The girls spent time with patients and their families, making their stay more comfortable. (Photo: courtesy Rani Howard)


Everyone knows the pivotal role doctors and nurses play in a patient’s cure. Now, another, lesser-known group of healers is making an appearance at hospitals around the world, including St. Louis.

Clown doctors are a group of professionally trained clowns who visit hospitals and medical centers. They arrive in costumes, sport whimsical names, create balloon animals, sing songs and give sick patients and their families the hope and comfort that they need. Magic tricks and storytelling are also used to lift the children’s spirits. Although these unique doctors usually visit children, they also attend to adult patients. The book of Leviticus states “love your neighbor as yourself,” clearly stressing the importance of doing acts of kindness for others. The activities of a clown doctor are acts of extraordinary kindness, and truly exemplify the idea of loving one’s neighbor.

The atmosphere of laughter and happiness allows a child to focus on things other than his condition. Medical clowning provides this laughter at a critical time in the child’s life.

There are many psychological health benefits involving laughter. Dr. Lee Berk and fellow researcher Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California have published studies showing that laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexion and boosts immune function. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being. 

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Many organizations and hospitals integrate clown doctors into the care they provide. St. Louis Children’s Hospital uses a pair of clowns to visit the hematology/oncology clinic, the neurology rehabilitation floor and all inpatient floors during two, four-hour shifts each week. In 2003 alone, the Clown Docs made more than 5,000 visits to children in the hospital, according to the Children’s Hospital website.

Many teens have been involved in this act of kindness. One of those teens, Adira Axelbaum, a senior at Block Yeshiva High School, participated as a clown doctor in Israel. Last past summer, Axelbaum attended GIVE, a National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) community service program.

“We went through an intense training process,” Axelbaum said. “Then [we] dressed up in different colors and did our hair and makeup and wore clown noses.”

The girls at GIVE visited children ages 5 to 12 in all different wards of the hospital. They volunteered at many different hospitals in various cities throughout Israel, visiting children’s birthday parties to help celebrate with the patients and their families.

“When you make a child laugh and see her face light up the room, you have best feeling in the world,” Axelbaum said.

 Rabbi Gershie Meisel, a former student of Sha’alvim for Boys, has also volunteered as a clown doctor. He was involved with a program called Simchat Halev in Israel. There, Meisel learned how to approach the different situations medical clowns encounter. A hospital is an overwhelming place for visitors and it is important for medical clowns to maintain their composure in intense surroundings. Meisel visited rooms around the hospital wearing a red nose and making balloon animals. He tried to make each patient feel comfortable during his visit. Many children look forward to the fun-filled experiences medical clowning provides. The joyous atmosphere impacts each individual child.

“The key is giving a gift to the patients. They truly appreciate it,” Meisel said. “You feel like you made a difference. A lot of people haven’t had relief in this intense part of their life.”

These clown doctors provide a much-needed respite for patients and their families. They offer a moment of escape from their pain and a chance to heal through laughter.

“Acting as a medical clown is an unbelievable experience for the clown and the child,” Axelbaum said. “Just those 20 minutes gives [the patient] hope and shows that people care. The children feel as though they can endure their illness.”

A brief act of loving-kindness can truly be a powerful remedy.