Medical clown visits kids at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago

Joseph Duffy knew he wasn’t going to like what came next. Lying on a table in a room in the orthopedics department of Children’s Memorial Hospital’s outpatient center, the 3-year-old was watching the saw come closer to the cast wrapped around his hips and leg. It was loud and scary and he began to cry.

David Barashi, a medical clown visiting the facility on Thursday, knew his cue when he saw it. He leaned in, honked his bright red nose, and asked Joseph for a high-five.

Children’s Hospital was the last stop on a five-day swing through Chicago area children’s hospitals for Barashi, who is from Israel. He spent Thursday morning popping into waiting and exam rooms at the Clark Street facility. The trip was sponsored by Hadassah, a Jewish organization based in Skokie, and the Israeli Consulate of Chicago.

“It’s important because when kids come to a hospital…they lose a little bit of what it is to be a child,” says Barashi, who goes by the clown name Dodi. “It’s to give them some self-confidence again and [remind] them … that they’re a human being.”

Laughter may not be a cure-all, but it certainly helps the medicine go down, says Dr. Michelle Sagan, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s and Duffy’s doctor.

“When you see a kid who’s smiling and giggling while we’re doing something like putting them in a body cast, it’s a good sign,” Sagan says.

Barashi knows all the tricks – funny voices, quarters behind the ear, hand puppets – but he says humor is just his way of building trust with the kids.

“It’s a beginning,” he says. “It’s a moment when a window opens and we can go inside.”

The Dream Doctor Project has about 70 doctors in 22 hospitals in Israel, where therapeutic humor is a more mainstream component of healthcare. Its clowns have traveled to Haiti, India, Ethiopia, and Thailand after the tsunami in 2004, and Barashi will head to Florida when he leaves Chicago. [See pictures from the group’s trip to Haiti]

He also visited Rush Memorial Hospital, the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and Advocate Lutheran General in Park Ridge.

“The clowning language is so universal that everybody feels it,” Barashi says. “Kids are the same everywhere.”

And it’s not just kids who get a lift from medical clowns. Sagan says it perks up the staff, too, and Monique Merckelbach, whose three sons each got a red nose and few minutes with Barashi, says she’s never seen a dentist visit go so smoothly.

“I looked at the parents when he was interacting with the kids, and you could see them smiling with relief,” says Maya Karmely, an officer at the Israeli consulate of Chicago who accompanied Barashi. “They get to see their child be a child again. It’s really heartwarming to see.”

Four-year-old Samantha Amaya, of Waukegan, spent the 15 minutes before her appointment coloring, blowing bubbles and playing music with Barashi. And though she spoke mostly Spanish, Barashi’s sing-song gibberish came through loud and clear.

To learn more about the Dream Doctor Project, visit the group’s website. To learn more about Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Child Life program, click here.

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