Playing Well: Humorologists Bring Joy and Laughter to Sibley Patients

  • September 9, 2020

Being in the hospital isn’t easy for kids. In addition to not feeling well physically, they can often feel emotionally stressed and powerless. The clowns from Humorology Atlanta aim to add levity to the room with their artistry and love of fun.

“When we visit a patient, they lead us,” said Maia Knispel (Dr. Meme), program director. “They get to be in charge and the focus of all the attention. They don’t get to say ‘no’ to a lot people, especially when they’re in the hospital, but when we visit, they’re in charge and they get to boss us around.”

Humorology Atlanta was born from the Big Apple Circus, which began bringing clowns into medical institutions in the 1990s. When Big Apple closed down in 2016, Knispel partnered with other Atlanta artists to launch the nonprofit that now serves area pediatric hospitals, senior communities and workplaces. The HA! “Clown Doctors” use music, dance, circus arts, mime, magic, improvisation and the art of clowning to spread laughter and provide focus, distraction, fun, motivation, celebration, relaxation and relief.

The clowns always work in pairs and take time to connect with the staff ahead of visiting patients on the floor to discover if there are any specific ways they can help.

“We appreciate being part of the circle of care, and we do anything we can to help and be of service, not just by entertaining the families but for staff,” Knispel said. “We ask what they need. Sometimes there is a need for patient distraction, for demystifying the medical process or just turning a heavy environment into a lighter one. Our team has been trained and educated to read a room and determine what’s most needed in the moment, and great communication with the staff is important to getting that right.”

Their bits tend not to be rigidly set ahead of time, with the clowns preferring to see what the room provides and using their skills of improvisation to engage children in the ways they respond best.

We try to let the child be in the lead, and we play until we see what will draw them out,” said Meredith Gordon, also known as Dr. Squeeze. “One of the original clowns who worked with this program used to say, ‘Play to the well part of the child.’ We work to find the fun within the child and to find the game they want to play in that moment.”

Gordon said that while HA! gives him the opportunity to perform and perfect his artistry, his work is really more about offering a gift to others.

“This work is for a very intimate audience,” Gordon said. “You get a lot of direct, immediate feedback and what you offer back is a gift that you’re giving. It’s an opportunity to serve.”

Gordon recalls meeting a woman and her son at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta a few years who had come to the volunteer office with a picture of him, inquiring if the clowns still visited patients there. Dr. Squeeze had visited the boy in the hospital years before when he was a toddler, and the experience was so meaningful that he wanted to follow up with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a teen to see if the clowns were still doing the work.

“When I asked what the team did during the visit that was so memorable, the mother replied, ‘You brought smiles,’” Gordon said. “It’s refreshing to know that it’s our job to bring smiles!”

Spread the Word!

Since COVID-19, HA! has suspended in-person visits. They now offer virtual visits through their website, where kids can go to experience the same kind of clown shenanigans and fun that the clowns offer “nose to nose.” The magic of technology allows the clowns to visit kids in their homes as well as in the hospital. To book a free virtual appointment, visit the HA! website. Ten spots are available per day, and “walk-ins” are also available. While the virtual appointments are fun, the clowns at Humorology Atlanta look forward to returning to their work seeing patients face-to-face in the hospital.

To donate to Humorology Atlanta, visit the Donate Page.

For more information about Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.