Is there a clown in the house?
January 14, 2009 · Updated 7:49 AM
The care unit at Whidbey General Hospital had an outbreak of frowns Monday, so they called in a specialist.
“Have you had your IV flushed today?” asked the red-nosed Dr. StumbleMore, who entered patient Fred Francis’ room displaying a miniature toilet.
“Doctor! What happened to you?” replied Francis, mustering a grin.
The 68-year-old patient was laughing as his make-believe doctor examined his funnybone and finished an emergency transplant of a red clown nose.
Over the past three years, Blake Thompson, the alter ego of Dr. StumbleMore, has volunteered time to brighten things up in a place where brightness isn’t always around.
Medical experts say humor can be a strong healing force, by reducing high blood pressure and raising endorphins in what can otherwise be a perfect storm of anxiety and stress over finances. It can also let patients have a choice.
“Patients can’t decide their medication, or when to take it, but when Dr. StumbleMore knocks on the door and asks to come in, they can say yes or no. It restores dignity to the hospital experience,” said Trish Rose of hospital community relations.
Thompson’s arrival in the care unit also drew attention from doctors and nurses. During his rounds, he usually hands them smiley face stickers and a special “staff medication,” of different flavored candies.
Rose said that Dr. StumbleMore had even cured her of coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, from his visits.
“Hospitals have a coding system, such as code red for a fire and code blue for cardiac assistance. When Blake was in the hallway, I would get a phone call for ‘code clown’ and I wouldn’t leave my office,” Rose said. “But eventually I got to know the man behind the makeup.”
Thompson must be equally sensitive with patients, and he follows a stringent set of hospital rules. He must ask permission before entering a patient’s space and wash his hands after leaving each room, to avoid passing along infections.
His training for hospital clowning began in 2000, when he attended clown college in Minnesota.
“One morning I woke up and told my wife, ‘I’m going to be a clown.’ She said, ‘What’s new?’ And that’s how it started,” Thompson said.
He soon found a mentor in Pennsylvania named George Edwards, who was part of a clown troupe called Bumper T. Caring Clowns. The organization set out to create national guidelines for hospitals to have a “caring clowning” program in its facility. Thompson uses many of their methods today.
“I learned that the most important part of the visit is the exit. You reinforce that there is love and care, that this is a great hospital and that no, you are not their real doctor. That usually gets a laugh,” Thompson said.
In one care room, Thompson met with a disoriented patient Monday afternoon. His son, Tom Kidd, warned that his father might be unresponsive.
But smiles and words were soon exchanged.
“Sometimes Blake can spark a memory from way back, that allows them to connect. It takes them to an older, safer time,” Rose said.
The tired patient fell asleep during the visit, and Thompson left a clown nose and photograph by his bedside. In most cases, Thompson can sense a good time to leave, and tries not to overstay. Other times, a patient will ask him to sit in the room with them.
“I can be there for hours, just holding someone’s hand and we’ll both be quiet,” he said.
Thompson is currently the only Bumper T. Clown in Washington State, and volunteers at Whidbey General Hospital one or more times a week.
Although he is unable to know the healing affect he has on patients, he hopes that lightening the mood will transmit positive things.
And while he is a retired medical plans designer, he said he does not plan to retire from hospital clowning.
“I will do this for as long as I can walk and talk,” Thompson said.