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'ClownDoctors' do the rounds to cheer up sick children

By Kerry McKittrick

They say laughter is the best medicine. If that is really the case then some of Northern Ireland’s sick children are due a hefty dose with new ‘ClownDoctors’ set to be doing the rounds on wards.

ClownDoctors are professional performance artists who visit sick children in hospitals and hospices to brighten their day with creative play and fun.

Elaine Duncan, also known as Dr Twinkle, has been with the project since its inception in 2004 and also works as a professional actress.

She said: “The job is to have fun with the kids and you can't do it without enjoying yourself.”

All ClownDoctors are given ongoing training on health and safety, different illnesses they will encounter and how to play with children with different abilities.

“If a child is confined to bed then the idea is to keep them there. We entertain them with music, scarves, juggling and mime if they can't get out of bed to join in,” Elaine said.

Many of the children the ClownDoctors visit have acute diseases and in some cases are terminally ill, but it doesn't phase Elaine.

“You play with the well part of the child. Even if they can't move our job is to entertain them. Part of the training is that you leave your own baggage at the door. Once that red nose goes on I'm not Elaine any more, I'm Dr Twinkle.”

Red noses and white coats are the trademarks of ClownDoctors who remain steadfastly in character while on the wards.

Even when adults attempt normal conversation they might find themselves discussing custard instead.

That's not to say it can't be as daunting as any other job. When the project was getting off the ground ClownDoctors originally worked with an already established Scottish group.

Elaine found her first experience nervewracking.

She said: “I was led out to the ward by my Scottish partner and I remember standing there thinking 'I can't do this'. He started using me as an artist's model. He twisted me into all sorts of shapes to amuse a little girl and when she giggled that was it, I knew I could do it.”

Thanks to a Big Lottery Fund grant of £9,380 six new ClownDoctors will be tickling funny bones in hospital wards from April.

Founder/Director of the Northern Ireland ClownDoctor project Jan Branch said: “We are part of the team of care for each child we visit, working with medical and nursing staff, hospital play specialists, and family members. Our job within that team is to provide opportunities for fun, laughter, play, chat and creativity.

“Hospitals are challenging places for anyone, especially children who find themselves in a different, confusing and sometimes alien place. Every child has the right to play and to enjoy themselves and that’s why we’re here. Northern Ireland ClownDoctors are delighted at this award which allows us to recruit and train new ClownDoctors, to expand our team and our hospital visits.”

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