Clown Doctors in NYC

Located in New York City hospitals The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit (CCU), entertains and aids children, family and staff, and can be compared to shamans seen in non-Western medicine. Started in 1986 by Michael Christensen, the CCU now serves 7 pediatric units throughout New York City. The clowns job is the cheer patients, family and staff. They may entertain bored patients held for hours in waiting rooms, or distract children during painful procedures, or console parents and family member during difficult times. The clowns use a variety of tricks or skits including magic, toys, balloons etc. The CCU works directly with the traditional medical staff. Doctors and nurses are often the target of gags or pranks to give the child control and ease the discomfort and tension. The CCU works hand in hand with traditional bio-medicine to provide a holistic approach to medicine often not seen in Western medicine.

The relationship between clowns in Western medicine to shamans in non-Western societies is quite easy to see. Clowning originated from shamanistic performances, sword swallowing, acrobatics, magic tricks etc. Traditional shamans today are believed to retrieve lost souls, communicate with spirits and function in supernatural realms while helping to treat and illness. Clowns and shamans both focus on treating or aiding in the human perception, social and cultural dimensions of the illness. They both break traditional barriers with unusual costumes and makeup. The use of props, music, performances etc.

The healers in this article are the clowns. while not treating a patients broken bone or cancer diagnosis the clowns are there to help heal the emotional strain caused by the illness. Clowns have no specific social status, the character they perform as could be from any socioeconomic background. The two systems involved in the article are the folk sector and the professional sector. In this system healthcare is provided with a combination of the two sectors. The professional or biomedical sector uses new age equipment with highly trained doctors and nurses to treat diseases and injuries. The folk sector uses clowns and a number of different performances to provide a social healing to the patients.

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  1. shivani says:

    The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit (CCU) have a different purpose than biomedical doctors. While biomedical doctors are there to directly treat the patients and ‘cure’ them or whatever other terminology you may want to use, the CCU is there to provide support to the patients and families – to cheer them up, to entertain them, to console them. The CCU are comparable to shamans and other healers that are present in non-Western contexts. Health-care in the United States is very blunt and direct – there’s not really any goofing around. It presents itself as a very professional environment. Shamans and healers, as they are perceived as non-conventional in western contexts, are often used in direct contrast to the biomedical system. Having the CCU also seems like an antithesis of what biomedicine is with their use of props and costumes, but its use is highly beneficial and effective.
    The CCU do seem legitimate to me. They provide support; they relieve stress; they assist in creating a more positive environment for their patients. Positive psychology has been shown to have a positive effect on treatment and healing, and the CCU is providing just that. By providing laughter and doing their performances, CCU helps to decrease patient’s stress and pain levels which assist in boosting the immune system – just another step towards getting better.


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