The man in the big red nose and stethoscope may have seemed silly, but his message couldn’t be more serious. Humor is more than a lighthearted distraction. Infused with awareness and empathy, humor nourishes a culture of compassion that benefits patients and hospital staff alike.
Professional medical clown Michael Christensen and theatre scholar Atay Citron brought their skills to Stony Brook Medicine on Oct. 26. Christensen’s workshop on interacting with humor, and Citron’s lecture on medical clowning around the world, showed staff and students how to bring clowning techniques into relationships with patients, each other and even themselves.
“Everybody has a sense of play. Never undervalue that,” said Christensen, retired co-founder of the Big Apple Circus.
Healing clowns work in hospitals around the world, relaxing patients and healthcare teams. That’s easier said than done in the hectic world of a large, bustling hospital where the pressures are real and – sometimes – seemingly inescapable.
Christensen began the afternoon’s “Human First!” session with exercises designed to show participants how to gauge the energy of others. Participants used words and gestures to direct each other’s movements, then kicked it up a notch at Christensen’s urging. He pointed out that clowns and medical practitioners – despite the difference in their job descriptions – both benefit from sensing how people in a room are feeling, making a quick assessment of the situation and deciding what action to take.
Later he paired up participants, asking one to imagine they were a camera and the other to pretend they were operating that ‘camera’ by moving their partner’s head and limbs.
“I saw a lot of anxiety in your bodies,” Christensen said. “This might be what it feels like, a little bit, when you put someone in charge of you. Now you know how patients might feel when they put themselves in your hands, especially when there’s illness involved.”
Christensen then asked the partners to switch roles, saying, “This time, I want you to do whatever you can to make your ‘camera’ more comfortable.” Encouraging words of “That’s it, you’re doing great” could be heard around the room, and the “photographers” put their partners at ease by maneuvering them even more carefully.
Really focusing on communication helps not only patients, but medical practitioners themselves, said Stephen Post, PhD, director of the university’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics. “All great medical centers establish a culture of empathy and compassion, not just between professionals and patients, but between professionals themselves,” he said. “And we want our medical students to realize that it’s very important for their professional identity and stability as professionals, long term, to take into account this side of their lives.”
Maria Basile, MD, adjunct professor, Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, Stony Brook University, and vice president, Medical Affairs, J.T. Mather Memorial Hospital, encouraged medical students to attend the workshop.
“Healthcare can be such a technically advanced field, but it’s also important for doctors in training to be aware of the human factors in the doctor-patient relationship,” she said.
Christensen’s goal was for workshop participants to leave “feeling that the ability to simply be present, the ability to be present and aware – not attached to something that went before, not projecting what’s going to happen, taking in emotional and physical information – is really, really important as professional healthcare givers,” he said.
Within all of us is a clown’s silliness waiting to be summoned, Christensen said.