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Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society
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A juggling act in bittersweet times

These therapeutic medical clowns seem to have a magical skill set that we all need, a toolkit that is especially powerful in times of stress
The Dream Doctors combine many professional skills including; street theatre, clowning techniques, performance arts, current medical and nursing practices, and therapeutic care. Founded by Yaacov Shriqui in 2002, it has 100 clown doctors in over thirty hospitals across Israel. Featured above Shira Sattler Friedlander Olive Emla, Limor Eshayek, and Nimrod Eisenberg. Fall, 2019. Credit: Lia Yaffe.
The Dream Doctors combine many professional skills including; street theatre, clowning techniques, performance arts, current medical and nursing practices, and therapeutic care. Founded by Yaacov Shriqui in 2002, it has 100 clown doctors in over thirty hospitals across Israel. Featured above Shira Sattler Friedlander Olive Emla, Limor Eshayek, and Nimrod Eisenberg. Fall, 2019. Credit: Lia Yaffe.

You spot the red nose first. It is a welcome sign that you can’t miss. A jubilant invitation that often comes with soap bubbles, and plenty of polka dots and stripes too. These medical clowns are ready to show up as ambassadors for playfulness. They take on the wondrous task of making even the most challenging of settings feel a bit more friendly.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to join Dream Doctor’s project coordinator, Hila Peer, at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. There was lots to discuss- the group’s everyday work in Israeli hospitals as well as years of humanitarian volunteer activities abroad. Hila, along with Nimrod Eisenberg and Smadar Harpak had, in fact, just returned from Dream Doctors visits to Moldova and Poland in support of Ukrainian refugees.

Smadar Harpak jokes with a Ukrainian refugee child at a shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March, 2022. Teams of Dream Doctors have spent time in recent months in Poland and Moldova to offer therapeutic clowning techniques and trauma intervention. As part of humanitarian missions, they have travelled to over the years to Nepal, Haiti, Uganda, Ethiopia and Chad, among others. Credit: Hila Peer

Since an amusing encounter with a Dream Doctor clown at a hospital in Haifa years ago, I have followed the adventures of the organization. I was always curious about how it all works. The silliness of a clown in such serious settings – hospitals, refugee centers. They seemed to hold a magical skill set that we all need, a toolkit that is especially powerful in times of stress.

Once I met Hila and we entered the children’s hospital lobby, I understand quickly that I better keep up. It is nonstop action. The surprise of seeing a clown in the unlikeliest of places only adds to the delight. I watch children snap to attention as they pass by, sneaking a smile or a shy wave. Nimrod and Smadar, both staff members at the hospital, are right at home here. And wherever they go with their red noses and fanciful outfits, laughter is close behind.

The stage keeps moving: the corridor, the elevator… every chance meeting is an opportunity for a point of connection. Once we arrive at the children’s oncology department though, the dynamic interactions begin to shift. Many of the children are well-known to Nimrod and Smadar, patients they see regularly. It is here where I begin to understand more about the nature of their day-to-day therapeutic work. Dream Doctor medical clowns are an integral part of the patient care, working hard alongside the medical staff to create a positive vibe in particularly tough circumstances.

Nimrod Eisenberg is creative consultant for Dream Doctors and develops the training for therapeutic medical clowns who then become an integral part of the healthcare staff in hospitals. The training builds on their talents with improvisation and physical theater with principles from psychology and medicine.

Back in 2002, Nimrod (also known as Dr. Max) was part of the original group of street performers, jugglers, puppeteers, and actors who gathered in the first experimental run at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. The idea was to make a more personal experience for patients by bringing the art of clowning to pediatric care.

As Nimrod recalls, there was lots of mutual learning that took place at first. Doctors and nurses, along with their more boisterous counterparts, the clowns, had to find a way to make it work. It took some negotiations. Yes, a clown can be a bit disruptive. And that is actually the point. The clown can act as a positive disruption in moments of distress, bringing more lightheartedness into the scene.

Dream Doctors organizes regular gatherings for its medical clowns, as seen above in Fall 2019, and builds partnerships to advance the field around the world. As part of their efforts, Dream Doctors hosted in Israel the first International Conference on Medicine and Medical Clowning in 2012.

You have this character – the clown – acting foolishly on purpose. Maybe bumping into the wall, falling off a chair. A kazoo is likely to be heard at some point. Children see a clown who is, in a sense, like a big kid. Amid all the necessary hierarchy and medical protocols of the hospital, a clown can help to loosen things up.

The approach of Dream Doctors is to ensure that the clown acts as a ‘bridge’. The bridge between adults and children, between a carefree frivolity and strict rules, between the very serious enterprise of healing and the innate proclivity we all have for joy, even in times of anxiety or pain or sadness.

The Clownbulance Project- established in 2015 by two medical clowns, Smadar Harpak and Michal Korman – both featured above- gives children a break from ongoing medical treatments. To help keep their spirits up, the Clownbulance gives them together with their family and the medical clown, a chance to choose some type of adventure for the day and escape the routine of ongoing hospitalization.

Observing Nimrod and Smadar in action, you can see how easily kids transform themselves into expert guides, happy to explain medical protocol to bumbling clowns. It’s problem solving in real time. And roles get blurred during these improvised interactions. A shift can take place, like a release valve opening up to help lift the heaviness in the room for children and parents alike.

Research backs all of this up. It turns out there is nothing frivolous about cultivating joy and exuberance. Oversized shoes and oversized red noses can have an outsized effect on our mood. After twenty years of building the profession of medical clowning in Israel, Dream Doctors has data that points to the improved wellbeing of patients. For example, the medical clowns spend lots of time accompanying children during hospital procedures such as blood tests and x-rays -helping to bring a bit of levity to the process and reduce anxiety. Their presence in more frightening scenarios for kids like MRI scans can minimize the need for anesthesia, where otherwise children often have to be sedated. Here financial savings happily coincide with a lighter emotional toll on everyone.

Dream Doctors medical clowns continued working their regular shifts in hospitals throughout the coronavirus outbreak, including working directly with Covid-19 patients, bringing good cheer when possible. Iris Lia Sofer, Shlomit Becher, Michal Korman, Effi Katz and Noam Inbar, featured above. January, 2021.

While I was thrilled to see Dream Doctors in action right in Tel Aviv, I was continually reminded of the universal nature of their work. So many of the play cues used in the art of clowning are nonverbal and internationally recognizable. Of course, if needed, gibberish is a language that comes in handy. As I heard Arabic, Russian, French, Yiddish and Hebrew within minutes of each other in the waiting room, I thought about how the clown’s main tools of communication are so ideally suited for such audiences.

Afterwards, parting ways with Nimrod and Smadar was difficult – it is tempting to stay close to all of their glow and cheer. Hila and I eventually walked out of the hospital with an abundance of buoyant energy. It seems to be the natural effect of spending so much time with individuals who take on the job of expanding everyone’s reservoir of playfulness.

Dream Doctor clowns challenge us not to lose our sense of enchantment. There is always the opportunity, even when we are suffering. We just need to be ready. Joy can burst out at any time – it comes from out of the blue, or with a big red nose, right in the middle.

About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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