Send in the Clowns

For ailing children, a little laughter can go a long way.

Cancer patient Michael Vasilevskiy with clowns Dikki Ellis and Julie Pasqual.
Photo by Joe Polillio.

From the moment “Dr. Trikki” and “Dr. Ima Confused” walk through the doors of the Valerie Fund Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston and spy a young leukemia patient eagerly awaiting their arrival, it is crystal clear who is in charge.

“Everybody jump,” shouts Michael Vasilevskiy, who turns 6 in December—nineteen months after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic (or lymphocytic) leukemia, a disease of the infection-fighting white blood cells and the most common childhood cancer.

For Michael, whose blue eyes sparkle with impish glee as he orders about his “doctors”—members of Big Apple Circus Clown Care—this is one of the few times he is able to be in complete control. It’s no small feat for a youngster for whom a simple blood test can be terrifying, much less a bone marrow biopsy or chemotherapy.

“Every time he would get a fever, he would have to stay in the intensive care unit for weeks,” says his mother, Tatyana Vasilevskaya. “The clowns always cheered him up. To watch him interact with them, it means the world to me.”

“The thing we most hear is, ‘That’s the first time I’ve heard him laugh in a week,’” says Dikki Ellis (a.k.a. Dr. Trikki), 56, of West Orange. “And, boy, I never get tired of hearing that.”

Clown Care—nearing its 25th year as the Big Apple Circus’s signature community outreach program in roughly eighteen hospitals across the United States—challenges the notion we have of clowns. No garish or shrill caricatures here. These clowns—specially trained in hospital protocol—embody an art form that is silly and slapstick, yet subtle and sensitive.

“We used to say, ‘We’re the Clown Care unit, not the Clown Scare unit,” says Michael Christensen, 63, of Bangor, Pennsylvania. Christensen created the program in 1986 to bring the healing power of humor to kids in critical care facilities.

“[The program] allows kids who are going through a lot of stressful things to, at least temporarily, take their minds off of their illness,” says Dr. Timothy Yeh, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Saint Barnabas, currently the only hospital in New Jersey to offer Clown Care.

There have been numerous efforts to measure the therapeutic benefits of laughter. Published studies by the department of anesthesiology at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, and in the 2005 issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, have found that the presence of hospital clowns significantly reduced a child’s anxiety prior to surgery.

“There are times when we see a kid in profound distress or pain, and we do our best. We don’t always go for the laugh,” says Julie Pasqual (a.k.a. Dr. Ima Confused), 48, of Jersey City. “With all the things we can do, we can’t stop that kid from being in that pain or having that disease or going through that treatment. But when I enter a [hospital] room, I’d like for everybody in that room to remember that this is still a child who is willing to play at some level.”

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