Clowning around may be the best kind of medicine

Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2014, 8:57 pm
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By Laura Anderson Shaw,
DAVENPORT -- Dozens and dozens of kitchen utensils and other odds and ends were scattered across a classroom floor Saturday at St. Ambrose University's Center for Health Sciences Education.

Many people might have spotted a funnel, a lint roller, a comb and a stapler, but the 30 people who sat in a circle around the objects saw more.

Unleashing their imaginations, colanders became fencing masks, bowls became magical turtle shells, a Slinky became a fishing pole to catch sharks and a whisk became a magic wand that could turn people into princesses.

The classroom was transformed into a Clown World of sorts Saturday, when a group of St. Ambrose psychology and occupational-therapy students and clowns from the Quad City Clown Troupe gathered for the first day of a two-day workshop on improvised clowning to relieve, engage and empower people who are confined to hospitals.

Led by Joyce Friedman -- also known by her clown name, Frizzle -- and Cheryl Lekousi, or Tic Toc, of the Hearts & Noses Hospital Clown Troupe out of the Boston area, the group heard stories about how the two hospital clowns connect with children through storytelling and coloring; participated in exercises, such as finding alternative uses of kitchen utensils; and learned ways to engage with and empower children and adults who are ill.

"This is fun learning," St. Ambrose occupational therapy professor Christine Urish said.

Dr. Urish, who is teaching a medical-clowning course this semester with St. Ambrose psychology professor Carol DeVolder, said she and Dr. DeVolder applied for a grant to bring the clowns from Hearts & Noses to campus to further the students' and area clowns' education.

Research has shown that medical clowning helps relieve pain, Dr. Urish said, and children who have interacted with medical clowns have reported lower rates of anxiety.

For kids and adults who are ill, "this is giving them a sense of joy," Dr. Urish said.

Those who are hospital-bound often are connected to tubes and machines, constantly being stuck by needles and undergoing procedures. With permission, clowns can come into their rooms and perform skits, sing songs and more to interact with them, Dr. Urish said, "to give them some distraction, to give them some enjoyment."

Dr. Urish said medical clowning "is embraced in many other countries," including Israel, Germany and Italy. By offering the course and hosting this weekend's workshop, Dr. Urish said, "(we're) doing our part" to raise awareness in the Quad-Cities.

Saturday, the group learned a number of tips and techniques for medical clowning, including "how to move our bodies, (and) how to use our emotions" to connect with people without relying on props, Dr. Urish said.

For those in her class who will become doctors, therapists and more someday, medical clowning techniques and methods will translate well to connect with and form relationships with their patients and clients.

"We're so much in our head all the time," Dr. Urish said, but the Hearts & Noses clowns were helping the group shake their self-judgment.

At the beginning of the session, Dr. Urish said the clowns walked a bowl around the room and told the group to throw in their self-judgment.

"It's definitely helping me come out of my shell more," said Aaron Eyster, a St. Ambrose occupational-therapy student from Rochelle, now living in Davenport.

Mr. Eyster said he took the medical-clowning course because he thought it would set him apart as a student and as a future occupational therapist.

Many may think of circus clowns at the mention of medical clowning, Mr. Eyster said, but the two are "completely different."

St. Ambrose pre-med student Averi Wilson, of New Boston, now living in Davenport, said in the future, she'll focus on making patients comfortable and making "them feel like they can talk to me like I'm their friend," without judgment.

"That's when you get the most honest answers," she said.

Medical clowning, then, will help her foster those relationships.

The class and workshop are "really helping me loosen up," she said, and "act outside of myself a little bit."

In addition, as a pre-med student, she's in a "weird position," she said, because she will not graduate with "any real skills."

With medical-clowning education under her belt, though, she said, that's something she can "start to apply right away."

For more information about medical clowning and the Hearts & Noses troupe, visit


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