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'Caring Clowns' Provide Good Medicine at the CC

By Dianne Needham

Photos by John Crawford, Ernie Branson

In her blue-sequined visor and rainbow-colored vest, Teresa Gretton drapes a stethoscope with a toilet plunger cup on one end around her neck. Reaching into her bag of tricks she pulls out a handbag, a purse in the shape of a human hand, and slings it over her shoulder. She grabs a shoehorn, a shoe with a built-in musical horn, and belts out a soulful tune. Finally, she rests a monkey puppet on her arm and talks to it. She then explains to her audience that the "more you play with your props, the more they become part of you."

The audience, a group of NIH'ers, attempts to write down her instructions amid their laughter. Gretton, a professional clown from Waldorf, Md., is introducing them to the art of clowning. Welcome to Clowning 101, a traditional 8 classes of clowning condensed into 3 sessions.

The class represents the Clinical Center's first foray into clown school. The sessions are sponsored by the rehabilitation medicine department's recreation therapy section. Dr. George Patrick, section chief, coordinates the new program and serves as dean of clowns.

Dean of Clowns George Patrick prepares to introduce the Clinical Center's Caring Clowns at the Halloween party on Oct. 30.

"Our clowns are preparing to volunteer with our Clinical Center patients, both adults and children, and their family members. It's never a bad idea to lighten up the emotional environment in a hospital — a smile, a grin or laughter can be good medicine," he said.

The clowns-in-training are preparing to become "caring clowns" — those who perform mainly in hospitals or similar facilities for audiences of individuals with specific physiological, psychological, spiritual or social needs. Caring clowns entertain with empathy.

Members of the Caring Clowns first cohort group learn how to apply make-up.

The clown wannabes are urged "to find their clown groove." It can take years to find one's clown character, Gretton said. "The character can contain exaggerated traits in the individual's personality, ones he wishes he had, and ones he has observed in others."

To enable trainees to do the best possible job, Gretton gives advice on how to enter a patient's room, what to do once inside, how to respond to the patient, how to entertain, how long to stay, how to make an exit and how to conduct oneself with others such as staff outside the room. Patrick said the new clowns will go out in teams of two, each a minimum of once a month. He feels confident they understand the value of, and are ready to spread the benefits of, therapeutic humor to both patients and staff.

In full clown regalia at the CC are (rear, from l) Carrie-On, Dr. Ruze and Klutzy. In the front row are (from l) Evie the Clown, Nurse Ladybug, Blinky and Shy Annie.

The CC's Caring Clowns made their debut as a group at the recreation therapy section's Halloween party on Oct. 30. If you have a clown emergency or find your inner clown rising from within and want to join in the volunteer fun, contact Patrick at 496-2278 or email him at

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