Clowning around with healthcare

February 28, 2013

Bern, Switzerland

By Pascal Lauener

The first time I meet Regula Kaltenrieder, a qualified acupuncturist, I didn’t know that she was one of the 200 Clown Doctors of the Theodora foundation.

The funny and loud crowd celebrated their 20th anniversary on the Federal Parliament Square in Bern. The foundation was founded in 1993 through the initiative of two brothers, André and Jan Poulie, who decided, in memory of their mother, to name the foundation Theodora. Outside Switzerland, the foundation is currently active in seven countries: England, Belarus, China, Spain, France, Italy and Turkey. After a chat with the media representative of the foundation and several phone calls and e-mails later they accepted a photographer to go on a visit with one of their clown doctors.

Last week I met Regula outside a Lebanese restaurant next to the main hospital, the Insel in Bern. She was drinking a cup of tea and chatting with four other women and the media representative of the foundation, who had to ask the parents for permission to take pictures during my visit with the clown doctor.

At 12:30 they grabbed their big cases on wheels, with all their clown equipment inside, and made their way towards the university children’s hospital. In a nurses cloak room hidden somewhere on a floor in the last corner of a corridor the transformation of the four women into clown doctors began. Changing from their street-ware in to colorful skirts, pants, big shoes and the typical red noses (only one was a blue one). But the biggest difference between an ordinary clown and a clown doctor is their colorful doctor overalls with their personalized name emblazoned on it. After every visit the clowns have to take their overalls to the dry cleaner, to prevent any communicable diseases from spreading.

In 2008 Regula started her work at the Theodora foundation to become a junior clown doctor. From July 2010 she performed for six days a month as Doctor Schmatz. After leaving the cloak room Doctor Schmatz and her colleagues ran through the gray corridors of the hospital cheering up people with their color and clown power on their way to meet their male colleagues.

The first station we visited was neonatology. The smallest and fragile patients hid in their small beds behind their blankets attached to machines bigger than themselves, surely not yet knowing what a clown doctor was. Doc Schmatz explained to me that the most important thing at this station was to show their presence, as regular visitors are not allowed and the clown doctor is one of the first people to see the newborn apart from parents and nurses. She sang a song, chatted with the baby and spoke with the parents. The clown doctors always leave one of their cards with their best wishes and colorful stickers with every visited newborn.

A harsh contrast was the next station we visited – oncology. It’s necessary to visit this ward at the beginning of the tour to prevent the transfer of diseases.

With a low voice Doc Schmatz asked the eight-year-old patient and her father if it was okay to come in for a visit. Behind every door was a different character, a different fate, and the clown doctors had to react quickly, adapting their program. From performing with balloons, joking, singing loudly, performing magic tricks to playing a quick round of poker, they did everything that helped the children to escape from the hospital environment and spend time in a world of color, music, magic and humor. During the visit I saw how important their work is, not only for the children but perhaps even more so for the parents and other relatives visiting the young patient. It gave them a break from the situation they are in. Another important task for the clown doctors was to always have a second spell to neutralize the first one, otherwise the clown doctors would walk out of the rooms without ever getting back their magic wands, hats or cuddly toys.

During a break Doc Schmatz spoke about her personal reasons for doing this work. Regula always wanted to become a clown but never found the courage to enroll at one of the famous clown schools. She continued to act with her own theater troupe, doing improv-theater and taking singing lessons. During her studies she saw for the first time the work of a clown doctor in a video and after graduation she finally signed up at a clown school.

Knowing that the Theodora foundation was looking for clown doctors she applied directly after finishing school and started her training at the foundation. Doc Schmatz likes her profession as a clown doctor. She enjoys always having different situations to deal with, having the chance to meet fascinating people and says on every visit you get back something for yourself. Sure, Regula also has other reasons for choosing this profession – it’s fun, they laugh a lot and enjoy playing. “I am very happy to play with all my talented colleagues together and this work is just extremely enriching,” she says. Of course, there are also challenging moments like handling the death of a child you often visited during their long term stay in the hospital. That’s the point where the clown doctor begins to take it personally.

During their short breaks between patients the clown doctors exchange experiences, show each other new magic tricks or chat about completely different subjects. After three hours I observed that the clown doctors were getting tired and had to cheer themselves up to finish the last visits with the same effort they had started with.

Taking pictures in a hospital setting is a difficult task. In my view as a photographer you have to face the patient and their relatives with all the respect. For me it was very important to cause as little distraction as possible so the clown doctor could do her work like I wasn’t there. I was surprised by the number of signed permissions to take pictures we had and I think this shows the good and trusted relationship between the patients, parents, hospital personal, clown doctors and the Theodora foundation.

Due to a congenital heart defect (situs inversus totalis) I know the inside and the corridors of the Insel hospital too well. As the paintings, the smell and the light have not changed much in the last thirty years it was a flashback to when we first visited oncology. The father sitting next to the big hospital bed and the pillar with the infusions reminded me too well of my parents sitting in those chairs trying to entertain me or, more importantly, just being there during the never ending days and weeks in the hospital. During my time in hospital the clown doctors had not been founded yet.

I am pleased that the clown doctors conduct their important visits and happy that I am able to report on their great work. After 5pm we left the children’s hospital, tired but happy and Doctor Schmatz transformed back to Regula on the way back home.

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