Clown volunteers, from left, Cathy Gha of Seminole, aka Uni-Corne; Joye Swisher of Largo, aka Ting; and Liz Clark of Clearwater, aka Dizzy Izzy, prepare to make the rounds Aug. 31 at Largo Medical Center. They are just some of the dozens of clowns who volunteer at the hospital in an effort to brighten patients’ spirits.
LARGO – Times are tough if you’re a clown these days. The remake of the Stephen King horror thriller “It” hits theaters Sept. 8, sightings of lurkers dressed up in creepy clown costumes continue to make headlines and the final curtain fell recently on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
But times are even tougher for some patients at Largo Medical Center, which is why a dedicated group of about 30 volunteers don the makeup, gather some props and provide a bit of levity to help the ill forget, if only for a few moments, that they’re in a hospital bed.
“This whole clownphobia thing is kind of taking on a life of its own,” said Dr. David Weiland, chief medical officer at Largo Medical Center and co-founder of the hospital’s Caring Clowns Humor 2 U program. “But really the focus is humor by the bedside, comic relief, relief of suffering. It’s really not about the clown so much. It’s more about the approach and getting people’s minds off other things.”
Weiland’s wife, Leslie, founded the Comedy Connection Caring Clowns in 1989 after receiving a grant from the Humor Project in New York to provide humor at Morton Plant Hospital. Since 2015, Caring Clowns College students meet, train and volunteer at LMC.
George, Gracie and the science of silliness
But the inspiration for injecting humor into medicine came many years earlier when she saw firsthand the power of comedy on one’s health.
Early in her nursing career, Weiland was doing home health and had a 95-year-old patient who had been kicked out of a nursing home because she was legally blind and deaf and combative. Since the woman had no family, a neighbor asked Weiland to come over one day and try to cheer her up.
So, armed with cassette tapes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Weiland put in the woman’s two hearing aids, placed headphones on her and waited.
“What changed my life was when we were watching her – and it was caught on videotape – she transforms from being confused and somewhat combative to recognizing Gracie Allen’s voice from the radio days,” she said. “Her face lit up. I’ll never forget that moment, and she starts laughing out loud.”
The lingering thought of the woman laughing delighted and troubled Weiland.
“It woke me up at night thinking how many people are in nursing homes or labeled confused and combative, and humor was the key that unlocked her door.”
Weiland started attending conferences to learn from and foster relationships with others in the field, such as Patch Adams who she says is a friend of hers.
The knowledge led to a grant and the Caring Clowns, who went to nursing homes and other senior service centers.
The Weilands said the results with dementia patients have been remarkable.
“We’ve actually had people who were nonresponsive get up and start dancing with our clowns,” Leslie said. “Administrators at the Alzheimer’s units are like, ‘Wow, what is going on?’”
What’s going on, David said, is that the tactics are tapping into a nostalgic nerve with patients.
“A Gracie Allen skit, a picture of Santa Claus, these are the things that touch these people and all of a sudden they become completely animated because even in the deep recesses of their memory disorder they still remember Santa or they remember these childhood songs we do,” said David. “So suddenly people are clapping and engaging when people thought they were catatonic.”
Leslie Weiland, whose clown alter ego is Nurse Hap-E, said smiles aren’t the only benefits of clowning because research shows humor can improve the health of both the patient and performer.
Among those benefits is helping the body’s ability to fight infection.
“What we’re finding is humor boosts the immune response in patients,” David said. “We can measure this immunologically, and there are studies showing a very important effect.”
Leslie adds that humor and laughter can help reduce blood pressure, combat stress and reduce pain by releasing endorphins – the body’s natural painkiller.
Clowns invade LMC
David’s introduction to the world of clowning began when he had a private practice in St. Petersburg, and Ringling Bros. clowns were his patients.
At Suncoast Hospice, where he was the medical director in the early 2000s, he would later meet his future wife, who was a physician liaison to the community.
“The funny thing that I remember is that she’s in there making photo copies, and I walk in and there’s this strange design that looked like fallopian tubes,” he said. “I said, ‘Are you giving a talk on ovarian cancer? This is an unusual thing to be copying.’ Then she starts laughing and said, ‘No, this is pips for clown makeup.’”
She later convinced him to join clown college in 2008 and his character, Flip Flop, was born.
He would become chief medical officer in 2014, and the next year, the clowns came to Largo Medical Center.
And besides a few nurses with a fear of clowns, hospital officials welcomed the group.
“If you do it at a children’s hospital, obviously it’s welcome,” said Matthew Goodner, volunteer manager at LMC. “So, at an adult hospital you would think it would probably be a little freaky. Some people don’t like clowns. … But overall, we haven’t had one negative comment or complaint about clowns being up on the floors. When you see the face of an 80-year-old lady who’s in the hospital and we got clowns in there doing a Three Stooges act, it’s pretty nice.”
Goodner, who oversees the hospital’s 89 adult volunteers and 112 student volunteers, said the clowns must go through a background check and receive orientation, but they are a wild – and welcome – bunch.
Also, because of the setting, Leslie said Caring Clowns are much different from performance clowns. During their eight weeks of training at the hospital, they learn about infection control, how to enter the room, how to exit the room, and are trained to focus on the caring aspect by learning to be sensitive to a patient’s needs.
“What we do is comedy connections as far as trying to connect with their age level and what’s appropriate for their cognitives,” she said. “So, it’s not just clowning around. It’s really therapeutic.”
The clowns and tactics seem to be leaving an impression on patients.
Leslie said a woman who recently passed away just gave the Caring Clowns a grant to start a children’s program, which Leslie is starting to design.
As far as the increase in clownphobia, the Weilands say the best they can do is laugh it off and not focus on the negative.
“It’s disappointing,” Leslie said, “because you think back and Groucho Marx has a quote, ‘Laughter is the best medicine. It works faster than an aspirin and there’s no side effects.’ And we really see that.”
Chris George is editor of the Largo Leader. He can be reached at 727-397-5563, ext. 316, or by email at cgeorge@TBNweekly.com.