In hospitals across New York City, a special type of doctor works within the halls of the pediatrics divisions, clown doctors. The Clown Care Unit as they’re called, or CCU, has been bringing the healing power of laughter to hospitalized children and their families since 1986. What started as a couple of circus clowns providing entertainment in a single hospital has grown to an organization of 35 clowns serving seven hospitals throughout the city. In the article, the author compares clowns to shamans, considering them to be the “shaman healers of the west”. She compares their outfits, makeup, and tricks to the attire and rituals of indigenous shamans of other cultures. Both use non-biomedical and holistic approaches, focusing more on the mental and emotional aspects of illness and helping people cope with them. Both are considered forms of alternative or complementary medicine. The clowns, unlike some shamans, know that they are not doing any of the physical healing, but know that they make a difference to the patients and families to provide relief emotionally.
The healers are people who have received some sort of professional clown/mime/actor training. Their social status in a cultural aspect is that of an average person in the U.S., but they are held in high regard by the visitors of the hospitals who enjoy their presence. The clowns use a myriad of techniques, some of the more notable as described in the article being: singing and playing music, blowing bubbles, slapstick comedy sketches, animal puppet shows, and various magic tricks. They interact directly with patients, families, and even the nurses, and doctors. The clown doctors will act out sketches or pull “pranks” with the medical doctors and nurses making the children feel comfortable and less intimidated by them as they perform tests and treatments. They let the children and families play with some of the props or help them with their magic tricks. Often when playing with the children, the clowns put them in a position of empowerment, letting the kids tell them how to correctly perform a magic trick they purposely backfired, or letting the kids be in control of one of the animal puppets. This gives the children a break from the usual helplessness they can feel from being sick or hurt in the hospital.
While the clowns themselves are not healing in a biomedical system, they work in one. The clowns are working in modern hospitals of western culture, which mainly use a biomedical approach when healing. In this system the body is understood through research and biological testing. Treatment is delivered via pharmaceutical drugs or surgery. The clowns are using non-traditional or alternative healing approaches. The clowns don’t have a thorough understanding of the body, but they understand humor and how to make people in situations not normally funny laugh. They deliver “treatment” by bringing uplifting jokes, music, and tricks to people who are in most need of it, the sick and their families.