Inside story

For Israel’s medical clowns, getting a giggle has never been a tougher sell

With the whole country traumatized — including themselves — ‘Dream Doctors’ do their best to therapeutically raise the spirits of the war wounded and displaced

Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Dream Doctors medical clowns peform a pretend wedding for a nurse and her fiancé, who had to cancel their real wedding because of the Israel-Hamas war. Sheba Medical Center, October 2023. (Dream Doctors)
Dream Doctors medical clowns peform a pretend wedding for a nurse and her fiancé, who had to cancel their real wedding because of the Israel-Hamas war. Sheba Medical Center, October 2023. (Dream Doctors)

Iris Lia Sofer’s usual medical clown name is “Olive Emla.” But for now, she salutes anyone she sees at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, and identifies herself as “Head of the Red Nose Command.”

Sick children and wounded soldiers laugh at this as she visits with them and tries to take their minds off the nation’s war with Hamas in Gaza and their personal pain.

Sofer and fellow medical clowns David Barashi (“Dush”) and Moshe Twito (“Tito”) told The Times of Israel that the weeks since October 7 have been like nothing they have encountered before.

“I’ve been a medical clown for decades. I’ve worked during the COVID pandemic, military operations, other wars — but this is different,” Barashi said.

“The entire society is traumatized. It’s not just those receiving medical treatment, it’s also those giving it,” he said.

The Times of Israel caught up with Barashi and Twito at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. However, they — like their clown colleagues — are also working with the approximately 200,000 displaced Israelis who have had to leave the country’s north or south for security reasons. These families are mainly housed in hotels or tent villages that have been hastily put up.

Some of those who have left the south have no home to return to following the ravaging of their communities by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated from Gaza on October 7. Around 1,400 Israelis were killed in the savage attack and ensuing war. The families of 222 Israelis have been notified that their loved ones have been taken hostage in Gaza by Hamas and other terrorist groups. Another approximately 100 people are still missing.

Iris Lia Sofer, medical clown ‘Olive Emla,’ salutes and calls herself ‘Head of the Red Nose Command’ at Sheba Medical Center, October 15, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

Sofer, Barashi and Twito are members of Dream Doctors, a non-profit organization founded in 2002 that integrates professional medical clowns into Israeli hospitals by training them to work as members of multidisciplinary care teams.

“There are more than 100 of us and we work not only in hospitals. In normal times we work in some 30 locations around the country, including geriatric facilities and schools. In hospitals we have a therapeutic role,” Sofer said.

Dream Doctors also sends teams abroad on humanitarian relief missions and runs an international training center. Sofer said she was recently in Moldova working with Ukrainian refugee children.

As Sofer took a short break in a waiting area in the pediatric post-surgical ward at Sheba, she explained how medical clowns approach their craft.

“We use tools, both therapeutic and artistic, to engage with the children and enter them into a world of fantasy where there are no rules and anything can happen. We speak a different language than other caregivers and it allows us to achieve different goals,” she said.

Medical clowns Moshe Twito (‘Tito’) and David Barashi (‘Dush’) at Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem, Oct. 19, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Sofer, who studied acting and psychology, explained that when people — especially children — are hospitalized, they lose control of everything. Doctors, nurses, and other personnel tell them what to do, what to wear, and what to eat. She plays with them in a way that lets them express the emotions they can’t or don’t know how to express verbally, and without acting out. It’s about far more than making the child laugh.

“They have to follow doctors’ orders and they feel alone and powerless. Their emotions build and they start to get angry. I become a tool for the child to express his or her feelings. They can’t express them in words, but they do it by interacting with me and watching me reflect how they feel,” she said.

Sofer carries with her a small purse made of clear plastic. It’s her bag of tricks, so to speak. She pulls out a flyswatter, swishes it around, and tells the kids she can use it against anyone who bothers her.

She also has a rubber flamingo toy that when you squish it, a ball pops out of its mouth.

Iris Lia Sofer, medical clown ‘Olive Emla,’ with a young patient at Sheba Medical Center, October 15, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“I tell the child, “Listen, you cannot surprise me. You cannot freak me out because I can lose control.’ Instantly they purposely frighten me. I squish the toy and the ball pops out,” Sofer said.

“I cry, ‘Oh my God. I wasn’t really scared. It just happened by coincidence, but now I will be fine. I will be strong.’ So actually I speak for them,” she said.

She also has props to distract children when they undergo painful procedures or tests, or when medical staff don’t want them to look at what is going on. She has a noise machine, bubbles, and even some fake poop. Sofer also makes sure to carry her ukulele at all times so she can sing a silly song when needed.

When The Times of Israel visited Sheba, she sang for seven-year-old Tal who was recovering from surgery and doing science experiments with a hospital educator. Sofer put on a pair of 3-D glasses and pretended to not see the girl and walk into walls. She had Tal and everyone else in the room in stitches.

Sheba Medical Center nurse Maya and her fiancé Tal in front of the huppah at their surprise pretend wedding put on by Dream Doctors medical clowns. The couple had to cancel their real wedding plans because of the Israel-Hamas war. October 2023. (Dream Doctors)

Sofer said she is engaging with the young patients about the war, but in what she called “a different language.” She salutes and introduces herself as the “Head of the Red Nose Command” and shows them the special ranks she has on her eclectic, colorful costume.

Sofer was asked to visit a wounded soldier at Sheba, and when she arrived, the parents of other soldiers asked her to come over to their sons, as well.

When asked whether working with soldiers is different than with kids, she said that the basics are the same and the goal is always to see and touch the heart and soul of the patient.

“We always say that adults are just kids, only taller,” she joked.

Sheba Medical Center nurse Maya and her fiancé Tal show off their rings at their surprise pretend wedding put on by Dream Doctors medical clowns. The couple had to cancel their real wedding plans because of the Israel-Hamas war. October 2023. (Dream Doctors)

With the soldiers, Sofer focused on humorous banter. She presented herself as their surgeon and told them their operation went well but that there were still a few more things to fix.

“They always laugh at that. And also when I ask them how they are feeling and whether they are available because I am single,” she recounted.

She also made up funny stories that took the soldiers away from where they were, even for just a moment.

The Dream Doctors are also there for the medical staff at the hospitals. They give them hugs and cheer them up as they move through the departments.

At the Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba, Dream Doctors arranged a surprise “wedding” for a nurse named Maya and her fiancé Tal. Because of the war, the two had to cancel the real wedding they had planned down to the last detail and long awaited. They were in no mood for celebrating, but the fun clown wedding — replete with huppah and bride’s veil — raised their spirits.

At Hadassah, Barashi admitted that it was a huge challenge to make people laugh and help them heal at this time.

Sofer herself has had moments of despair and feeling like she can’t keep up with her medical clowning mission.

“My stomach has been in knots, but I still need to be here for others. One day after the start of the war I came into the hospital. I was still in my street clothes and I was bawling. I was really stressed and having panic attacks,” Sofer shared.

“But when I changed clothes and put ‘Olive’ on, everything changed. She is a whole different character. She does for me what I do for other people. She’s healing my soul,” she said.

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