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Getting the Best Medicine, Plus Laughter

By Alice Reid
Monday, December 10, 2007

"I don't do well with vomit," admits Dr. J.J., sticking up his shiny red nose.

So when it happens on his rounds at Children's Hospital, he leaves the patient's bedside as fast as he can.

Fortunately, Dr. J.J. is "Chief Wiseguy" at the hospital and not chief of surgery.

Also known as John Dodge, a retired Baltimore police officer, Dr. J.J. is a clown. He and a team of colleagues from the Big Apple Circus have a contract with the Northwest Washington hospital to ply its halls several days a week, delivering something almost as precious as the most advanced pharmaceuticals: the medicine of silliness.

On the fourth floor of the oncology section one recent morning, Dr. J.J. and his partner Dr. Baldy, a.k.a. Mark Jaster, did their stuff for Caitlin Sax, 7, who faced a bone marrow transplant.

"I'm an animal specialist," Dr. Baldy announced. Any animal she wanted him to be, he would comply.

On her orders, he was first a duck, waddling around her room. Then she requested a chicken, then a sea gull, a bear and finally an elephant. Caitlin giggled from her chair, attached to a festoon of bags and monitors dangling above her.

"The elephant was the coolest" was her verdict.

The two clowns, wearing white lab coats, crazy ties and a hint of clown makeup, sailed out of her room and into another. Dr. J.J. entered first.

"I'm hiding from Dr. Baldy," he said conspiratorially to a lanky 9-year-old boy lying on the bed. "He's a big ugly guy, smells a lot. . . . " The boy began with a grin that grew to laughter as the two comics finished with a mock fight, tossing wadded-up wet paper towels at each other.

Next door was more challenging, an 18-year-old baseball player, not exactly into clowns. But the two brought him around with a hilarious version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

They finished up at the infusion rooms where youngsters receive chemotherapy. Jordan Smith, 4, who sat in the lap of her father, Brad, for the procedure, wasn't sure about these clowns. She snuggled up to her dad, hiding her face against his chest. The duo won her over with one of their tried-and-true tricks: lots of bubbles.

Over the past decade, clowns have secured a place at Children's and most large pediatric hospitals. More than 15 hospitals include them in their regimen, a testament to laughter as a potent medicine.

As Dr. J.J. and Dr. Baldy explained, clowning in a pediatric hospital requires subtlety. Because some children fear clowns, the Big Apple Circus crew applies makeup lightly. There are no crazy wigs or white greasepaint. Makeup should take no more than five minutes to apply, or it is overdone.

"We're not in-your-face clowns," said Dr. Baldy.

And "reading the room" -- that quick audience assessment a performer makes -- has new meaning for them. Behind every door lies a patient who can be anywhere from a toddler to a teen and might be critically ill. There's often also a family member who might be hurting in a different way. Doctors and nurses come and go, and there can be bulky equipment to dance around.

You develop "heightened listening," Dr. Baldy said. "Each routine becomes unique to the situation."

To help clowns stay fresh and on an even keel, a monthly team meeting that allows them to rehearse routines includes an hour of psychological counseling. Inevitably, clowns get attached to their patients. And not every case has a happy ending.

One thing Dr. Baldy and Dr. J.J. said they always try to do is let the children call the shots. They happily follow orders to "Be an elephant" or "Put your hat on your nose!"

"There is so little these children can control," Dr. Baldy said.

"At least with us, there is something they can control," Dr. J.J. said.

How to Help

In some cases a visit from Dr. J.J. and Dr. Baldy is the highlight of what most of us would call a pretty trying day.

And like advanced surgery or intensive care, clowns are there for everybody. Children's turns no one away, regardless of a family's ability to pay.

To donate, send a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md., 21297-1390.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions. To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital. All gifts are tax-deductible as allowed by law.

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