Volunteers clown around in Iowa hospital

posted on Sunday, July 29, 2012

At the ripe age of 83, Vernon Stabe has taken up a new pastime. His new interest demands more time, energy and effort than more passive hobbies, such as coin collecting or model airplanes. It is a healing hobby for both the provider and the recipient.

Research shows hobbies improve the quality of one’s life, and when that hobby involves laughter—arguably the best therapy of all—it can increase a person’s lifespan by years.  Vernon is working toward just that with his new interest in clowning.

Vernon Stabe - Hospital Clown

As a hospital clown at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Vernon (Dr. Ben Dova) recognizes the good he does not only for the patients, but also for himself. “When I see I’m putting a smile on their face, it’s helping me. It’s rewarding that they’re usually very happy to see us, and that makes me happy, too.”

Invited to join a hospital clown troupe by a neighbor, Vernon admits he was hesitant at first.  “My kids insisted I try it. The first two times I was a little leery.  As patients started to really appreciate it I was motivated to keep going.”

He knows that the work he does has therapeutic qualities for both the minds and bodies of patients.  With a song or a goofy trick he strives every day to turn a frown into a smile.

Jenny Herrick, another St. Luke’s hospital clown as well as a clown instructor, also finds joy and gratification through her work. She knows that “humor and laughter benefit the immune system; research has proven that.” The objective, she says, is to get patients to smile or release themselves from their troubles, even if it’s only for a moment.  “Sometimes the only thing we do is listen,” she says.

Jenny, a student of Dr Patch Adams, has trained several hundred people in humor healing. Many hospital clowns are people with day jobs that leave them tired after work. But they put on their makeup and drive to the hospital, spreading smiles from room to room, and at the end of their shift, they feel great and think, “What a great night.”

One of Jenny’s fondest clowning memories was when she and her team of clowns visited Clint, a terminally ill patient, a couple years ago. On this particular day, a news crew was following the clown troupe around to do a story on hospital clowning and Clint had agreed to join in the fun. He was given a balloon and a clown nose to wear. Afterward, Clint called his wife, his family, his friends, almost everyone he knew, telling them about the experience.

About two weeks later, Jenny got a call from the man’s wife relaying the news that Clint had died. “I just need to tell you something,” she said. “The day you and your clowns were in his room was the best day of his life—to be on TV and have all those clowns around. We buried him with the balloon and the red nose. Thank you so much for what you did for my husband.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Recently, Jenny and her clowns entered the room of a woman whose adult daughter was by her side. The daughter said, “Mom! Mom! Do you remember them?” It turns out that the ill woman was Clint’s wife. In an emotional moment, Jenny told the woman, “We want you to have your very own nose.”

Jenny and Vernon feel fortunate to be a part of the happier moments of patients’ lives.“It’s been very rewarding for me,”  Vernon said. “I’m glad I went through with it.”

And so are the patients, staff, families and doctors visited by the hospital clowns of St Luke’s.