Reinventing the red nose: Clowns join the frontlines of the coronavirus fight

‘We’re keeping the system sane,’ says clown chief, as his 100-strong team prescribes laughter as best medicine at 30 hospitals across Israel

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Medical clown Nimrod Eisenberg performing at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (courtesy)
Medical clown Nimrod Eisenberg performing at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (courtesy)

Israel’s hospital clowns are refusing to let coronavirus stop them — even if it means reinventing the red nose and disinfecting oversized pants in near-boiling temperatures.

The clowns are contending with their baggy pants shrinking from daily 90-degrees-Celsius washes, and they have thick glass windows in the way at they try to connect to coronavirus patients. But the smiles and laughs continue, as they work across hospital departments, including at new COVID-19 facilities.

“Instead of letting it hold us back we parody the level of protection needed in order to entertain,” said Nimrod Eisenberg. “So I add gloves on my ears, for example, to make this frightening situation amusing.”

Israel is a world leader in medical clowning, and Eisenberg, who works at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, is one of 100 clowns who are part of the Dream Doctors non-profit. It works in 30 hospitals across Israel, generally raising morale of patients and staff, and assisting in performing more than 40 different procedures.

The organization’s CEO Tsour Shriqui said that some hospitals asked clowns to stop showing up at the start of the crisis, but they are in a minority. “There were hospitals that suggested that we stop coming, but in 80% of the hospitals we’re still working,” said Shriqui. “We’re not just about entertainment and cheering up patients, we’re actually reducing fear and anxiety, which is especially important at the moment. We are also performing as people have procedures, which relaxes them and makes them more cooperative.”

Clown props aren’t designed for contact with harsh chemicals, but they are fading from regular dousing with alcohol. Eisenberg said: “Everything must be cleaned with medical alcohol and we need to wear lots of protection.”

Medical clown Nimrod Eisenberg performing at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (courtesy)

Every part of the normal routine has required review. Eisenberg explained: “Many of our clowns work through circus skills, and it’s normal to get people to participate, for example, by passing a colorful handkerchief to a child. But now, there’s no physical contact at all, not even passing an object to them. I have to elevate body language, voice, and make my presence much bigger.”

Regular red noses aren’t compatible with compulsorily protection gear. “With a mask on your face you need to have a different type of red nose so we had to prepare stickers with red noses,” Eisenberg said.

And while the essence of clowning is normally getting close to patients, routines have been adapted for the social distancing era, including for the extra-strict regulations of coronavirus wards, said Shriqui.

“We still go in to hospitals, stand behind glass, and interact with coronavirus patients,’ he said. “It’s a beautiful thing. If we need to manage without sound we mime, and if we can, we put a speaker in the room so they can hear us.”

Eisenberg said: “We’ll be outside the rooms and work with either video conference, or clowning through glass. The amazing thing about clowning is that it can be beautiful and nonverbal, so we’re a great tool for passing on positive emotion, even through thick glass.

“When there’s no sound it will be a physical pantomime, and when there are speakers and microphones available we sing, perform, and hear patients’ stories.”

Eisenberg commented: “Coronavirus restrictions involve a big creative challenge for clowns, but it is worth the effort.”

Shriqui said that clowns are investing lots of energy in trying to relax staff as well as patients, noting that while they are the ones in comical outfits performing outlandish routines, they are helping others to keep level-headed. “We’re keeping the system sane in this crazy time,” he said.

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