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OSU med students spread smiles through clowning club

Cody Cousino / Lantern photographer

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Stethoscopes, pagers and clown noses. Those are some of the tools of the trade for medical students involved with Clowning in Columbus, a club at Ohio State inspired by national groups that use laughter as treatment for hospital patients.

“It’s just fun (for patients) to be taken out of themselves for a moment,” said Eileen Mehl, the club’s adviser. “It sort of transports you to another time-space continuum. If you’re talking to someone wearing a red nose and purple hair, it takes you to another place and you can laugh and be silly and forget about your cares for a while.” 

The group’s members provide entertainment at medical fundraisers, such as the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America walk, hemophilia walks and health fairs in the area, said Allie Effron, a second-year in medical school and assistant leader of the group. The medical students entertain children by making balloon animals, blowing bubbles, playing games, face painting and acting silly.

“One little kid wanted a balloon of himself, he wanted a little person,” Effron said. “We did it and made it for him, and he was so happy when we were able to do it. Just the smile on his face was totally worth it.”

The club is based on the work of Dr. Patch Adams — the man known for fusing clowning and medicine — and of the Gesundheit! Institute, the nonprofit group he founded to apply his idea that fun and play can help patients recover.

Recently, the Columbus group attended a Halloween party at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“It’s a good way to learn how to make a kid laugh and just interact with them,” said Maggie Germain, a second-year in medical school and president of Clowning in Columbus. “We find out what they think is funny so that some day, when we’re working with patients, we can connect with them in that way and help make their time in the hospital or at the doctor’s office less scary.”

Throughout the years, the group’s target audience has changed as members and leaders come and go. This year the group is geared toward pediatrics, so most of the events deal with children, Germain said.

The medical students try to be silly but simple, wearing crazy clothes, wigs and clown noses. They avoid face paint so they don’t frighten children.

“We don’t want to scare them,” Germain said. “Even with just a nose, some kids get scared, and you’ll have to take it off and show them it is not real.”

Although the students dress up as clowns, most never aspired to that profession.

“We have a few people that come that have had a family member that was a clown and silly things like that, but for the most part, I just think people like the idea of creative caring through clowning,” Germain said.

Not only does Clowning in Columbus give students the opportunity to bring laughter into someone’s life, it can also benefit their professional careers.

“It gives (students) confidence that they can work with people who are in difficult situations and make them laugh and let them have fun and interact with them in a way that’s beneficial and not as difficult as they might think,” Mehl said.

The club began a few years ago at OSU after one of the medical students went to the West Virginia-based Gesundheit! Institute, Mehl said. After returning to OSU, he brought Adams to speak at the college and then started the club.

Friday, the group will host an event featuring Dr. Bonnie Gifford, an OSU alumna who was affiliated and did work with Adams’ national organization.

The event is open to all medical students and will feature “laughter yoga,” costume selection, character development and ways to connect with patients.

Although medical school is time-consuming, Mehl urges students to get involved with groups like Clowning in Columbus.

“It opens another avenue to students that they might not have thought of,” she said. “That they might keep a red nose in the pocket of their white coat and that not only can they interact with patients but they can invite their colleagues to do the same.” 

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