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Clowns Provide Cheer at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital

ClownZero founder Dan Griffiths, Lucia Perez-Duarte Berra and Danielle Conover clown around at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

By Juliana Bunim

Sometimes, clowning around in the hospital isn’t frowned upon.

That was the message on Nov. 22 when several patients at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital received a surprise visit from members of San Francisco based non-profit organization called ClownZero.  Three clowns stopped by with red noses, painted cheeks and brightly colored costumes as part of their Healing Through Humor Program.

The three clowns, Dr. Schnoozeensoop (ClownZero founder Dan Griffiths), Nurse Bumble (Danielle Conover) and Dr. Tilla (Lucia Perez-Duarte Berra) made the rounds through floors six and seven, where they improvised song lyrics, played a mini xylophone and engaged in slapstick humor for patients ranging from two years old to their late teens.

While a smiling child is always a welcome sight, the clowns provide more than just a momentary escape.  “In a hospital that has to be all about rules and maintaining structure, along come these people who break the rules and show it’s okay to be silly and make a joke,” said UCSF Child Life Services Manager Michael Towne. “It plays off the implicit dynamics between doctors and patients, parents and children. [The clowns] are purposely dressed as doctors and nurses and it breaks through that wall of authority.” 

And like the doctors they’re impersonating, these clowns have a method. 

Trained as artists, each clown must respond and interact with his or her surroundings. “They are expected to adapt to what a child tells them so it’s not a scary in your face thing,” said Towne. “They have to use the humor at the right time and the right place to harness that playfulness.”

The clowns never enter a patient room alone, always having at least one other clown to engage with for comedic set-up. One clown generally has “high status,” explained Griffiths, setting the rules while the other clown with “low status” breaks them, playing off one another.

An example of this could be seen when Nurse Bumble and Dr. Schnozensoop went to visit a young cancer patient curled up watching cartoons. When they asked the little girl what they should sing about, she responded “clowns.”

“Clams!” exclaimed Nurse Bumble. “Let’s sing about clams. They are delicious.”

“No!” shouted Dr. Schnozensoop, bonking Nurse Bumble on the head with his xylophone mallet. “She said clowns. Clowns!”  And so it went for five minutes until neither clown could get the song right, much to the delight of the smiling and giggling patient, who blew kisses to the clowns each time they left the room.

Clown Lucia Perez-Duarte Berra checks in with a patient in the playroom of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

All of the clowns have a background working with kids, and Griffiths comes from the Big Apple Circus Clown Care, an East Coast-based community outreach program that brings the circus to hospitalized children.

Since launching ClownZero in March, the organization’s presence at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital is already growing exponentially. “We started with just preliminary times to visit the playroom with one clown at first and then two,” said Griffiths. “Then we added the bedside, delivering books and things. Then we hosted bingo and slowly eased into rounds.”

Now ClownZero is continuing to expand, adding an outpatient day as well.

But what has made the program such a success is the spirit of those beneath the makeup.  On Nov. 22, as the clowns were leaving to go home, they passed a young cancer patient being wheeled down the hallway.  Jumping back into character, the clowns escorted the boy down the hall making choo-choo noises alongside of him, for a moment transforming a wheelchair, a patient and a hospital hallway into a train, an engineer and a wide-open track. 

Photos by Juliana Bunim

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