‘Clown doctors’ in Hong Kong prescribe laughter as medicine for sick children
Charity sends volunteers to visit patients in hospital to perform magic tricks, sing and entertain them to boost their mental and emotional well-being
Among the crisp, white coats donned at the hospital, Dr Fei-Fei stands out with her customised, colourful one, adorned with vibrant cartoon patches.
Armed with a few magic tricks, the “clown doctor” prescribes a weekly dose of humour to her patients.
For two decades, specialist entertainers acting as “clown doctors” have been sent by charity Theodora Foundation to cheer up sick children in local hospitals. Dr Fei Fei, whose real name is So Pui-ching, is one of seven such “doctors” in Hong Kong.
The Switzerland-based organisation began running clown doctor programmes in 1994, with its projects now operating around the world. But it has only one operation in Asia, which is located in Hong Kong. The programme in the city now serves more than 10,000 patients each year in six hospitals.
“Mental and emotional well-being is very important for sick children,” So, who works as an office clerk, said. “We are not just trying to be performers at the hospital but their friends in spirit.”
So has been volunteering three hours each week for the past 15 years to perform magic tricks and entertain the sick children. She said that many of them are chronic disease patients, including those who suffer from cancer and paralysis.
“Somehave spent their entire childhood in hospital,” she said. “They don’t know some of the most common things in life such as traffic lights and airplanes.”
She added that her persona as Dr Fei-Fei, which means “fly” in Chinese, was designed to help her patients imagine they can fly. The decorations on her coat are related to things that are capable of flying such as ladybugs and spacecraft.
“I invite them to engage their imagination so that they can forget their physical pain, even if it is just temporary,” she said. She added that it feels extremely rewarding when she makes those in pain laugh and feel positive even for just a while.
“I had a patient whose legs were swollen and covered with blisters. He was screaming in pain before I went in. He was feeling helpless,” she said. “But after performing some tricks for him for about 10 minutes, he was at least able to laugh for a brief moment.”
Just like laughter, negativity can also be contagious, she said. “We are hoping to change the atmosphere of the ward, which is often dull and cold.”
According to So, the Theodora Foundation programmes in some countries even send clown doctors to wait for their patients to finish surgery outside the operation room. The Hong Kong unit has been exploring this possibility with local hospitals.
Ng Hoi-kei, who is So’s colleague in real life, started entertaining children in hospital as a clown doctor three years ago. Going by the name Dr La-la, personifying the musical note “la”, she makes these visits dressed in a coat which has musical notes plastered all over, and equipped with an accordion.
“I play them Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with my little accordion,” Ng said. “And I also have this magic flower which can blossom and wither with just a click of a button.”
She said that what children fear in the hospital is often psychological. “The feeling of loneliness and isolation can evolve into a fear for the hospital environment on the whole,” she said.
Performing as a clown doctor is not as easy as many might think, Ng said, because the person has to learn to balance both his or her feelings and that of the patients.
“While we are trying to connect with them, we also have to be sensitive to their privacy and avoid any triggers,” she said, adding that she had learnt to roughly identify the patients’ illness by observing the equipment in the room.
The job had also taught her to manage her own feelings, as it can be emotionally taxing to constantly see patients suffer or even see them die.
“When you go and visit a patient and the nurses inform you that he is no longer with the hospital, you don’t press on [with questions] and just hope that he has gone home,” she said.
Clown doctors also have to know how to interact with each patient differently, she said.
“For some children, you can’t make them laugh too hard because any physical contortion is not good for their recuperation,” Ng said.
Dedication is also crucial if one wants to be a clown doctor as each volunteer has to go through training in psychology and performing for a few years before the foundation gives the green light.
These hospital entertainers are also expected to work on major holidays, because these periods are when the sick children need even more care and love.
“I had to work on the day of the Spring Festival even though my family thinks that it is not very auspicious,” she said.
Ng stressed that it was important for clown doctors to know how to differentiate their persona at the hospital from their identities in real life.
“We don’t want the patients to see who we are behind the mask because it could compromise the authenticity of our persona as the happy clown doctors,” she said.
“But regardless, it feels very rewarding on a personal level when I see children and parents waiting for my visit,” she said.
About the charity
The Theodora Foundation was founded by Swiss brothers Andre and Jan Poulie in 1993 in memory of their mother. Since its launch, the charity has been running “clown doctor” programmes in more than eight countries, cheering up more than half a million children in over 130 hospitals worldwide. The foundation began its service in Hong Kong in July 1996. Clown doctors in the local programme visit sick children three days a week, entertaining about two dozens of patients on each visit. All clown doctors are volunteers and they are typically trained for more than two years before they go on the hospital visits.