Clown doctors heal with laughter
The delighted squeals of children who were following Mr Ghazali Muzakir and Ms Eliane Stadelmann-Boving as they walked through a ward at the National University Hospital rang out so clearly that they could be heard from the next ward.
Dressed in white lab coats and carrying stethoscopes, the duo were there to help sick children recover, but not in the way you'd think.
The first giveaway that they were not your regular doctors: Their bright red plastic noses.
As members of Clown Doctors Singapore, Mr Ghazali, 28, and Ms Stadelmann-Boving, 33, believe that laughter is the best medicine.
Said Mr Ghazali, a drama teacher: "I realised that with my acting skills, I can make a difference to the lives of patients in the wards."
The group was set up in May this year, but the idea for it came about 2½ years ago on a golf course.
Businessman CY Cheong, 59, who was then living in Christchurch, New Zealand, was playing golf when he decided to bring medical clowning to Singapore.
"That was when I first met Dr Thomas Petschner, who asked for my help in raising funds for his charity trust through golf," he told The New Paper.
Dr Petschner is the founder of Clown Doctors New Zealand, an organisation that helps lift the spirits of children in hospitals and support the recovery of older patients.
He shared with Mr Cheong about the work of clown doctors, who wear white coats to parody doctors and who dish out songs, dances and magic tricks instead of pills.
"Having learnt all that, I thought it was a great idea to bring happiness to those who are sick, in pain or alone in the hospitals. I said I was happy to start a similar programme when I went back to Singapore," he recalled.
After his return, the Singaporean got caught up with work and the idea slipped his mind until he received an e-mail from Dr Petschner last October.
The two men met up that month and the plan to bring clown doctors to Singapore was sealed.
But getting the nonprofit organisation off the ground was not easy."
"First, we had to pick the right people to get certified. Then, we had to get buy-in from the hospitals," Mr Cheong said.
More than 60 people from different occupations signed up for an audition for clown doctors, held in July.
Eighteen people were picked and were put through a 26-day "Essentials in Medical Clowning" programme.
One of the candidates was Mr Ghazali.
Having been in theatre for some time, he was wondering if there was more to the industry when he discovered medical clowning.
"I soon learnt that medical clowning is more than just acting. There is the social and healing aspects and this makes me feel fulfilled," he said.
He always looks forward to the next "gig" as soon as one is done, he added.
His most memorable experience was a girl in her pre-teens, who went back to the ward as the clown doctors were leaving.
"She asked who we were and what we were doing there. She looked rather sad we were leaving, so we decided to stay a while longer to talk to her.
"I don't know what she was suffering from, but I'm looking forward to cheering her up at our next visit," he said.
So far, the group has done six "gigs" at three hospitals since their first one 1½ weeks ago.
Four to eight clown doctors show up at the sessions, which last for about four hours each.
Mr Cheong admitted that getting some of the hospitals to buy into the idea of having clown doctors in the wards was "somewhat of an uphill struggle", especially when it came to more conservative hospitals.
"The first to be our test bed was St Luke's Hospital. With the help of a friend from church, we managed to get the clown doctors into the wards.
"We cheered the elderly patients there with music and smells of yesteryear," he said.
Mr Cheong said he pumped in "quite a substantial amount (of money)" into the organisation, paying for international trainers to come to Singapore and providing an allowance to the clown doctors for each gig.
He declined to give exact figures.
He said: "It has only been 1½ weeks since the first group went out to the hospitals and I'm glad that even the sceptics are now believing in our brand of healing, (with) smiles and laughter."
Ms Stadelmann-Boving, an expat housewife and a former nurse, felt that the best part of clowning around on her rounds is "to see the patients smile".
"Whether they welcome us or reject us, our sessions usually end with laughter coming from the wards," she said.
Clown doctors aren't party clowns
Medical clowns, or clown doctors, use their storytelling and comic skills to help sick children and elderly patients deal with the range of emotions they undergo during their hospital stays.
Clown doctors are markedly different from the regular clowns invited to children's parties.
First, they refrain from putting on heavy clown make-up because younger patients may find it scary rather than funny. Instead, they simply don a red nose and a colourful outfit under a white lab coat.
Clown doctors also go through comprehensive training, said Ms Eliane Stadelmann-Boving, the programme director and co-founder of Clown Doctors Singapore.
Students of medical clowning study performing arts, health science, psychology and practical clowning.
"This helps them understand the complexities of illnesses and human behaviour, the basis for the work in a hospital environment," she explained.
Qualified clown doctors have to receive certification from the International Institute for Medical Clowning at Steinbeis University in Berlin, Germany, which also offers a diploma and bachelor of arts degree in medical clowning.
The institute has 240 students from over the world enrolled in its courses.
Ms Stadelmann-Boving said that clown doctor candidates here are taught by trainers accredited by the institute, who are specially flown in for the courses.