in the Clowns
Red-nosed healers brighten the days of young patients.
Above: clown rounds with Joel Jeske (Dr. Yadontsay)
and Jeff Smithson (Dr. Bombafu) at Yale-New Haven
Children's Hospital in September.
Clara Kohrn sat in a waiting room at Yale-New Haven Children's
Hospital, eyeing a red-nosed guy whose frayed lab coat
bore the badge “Dr. Bombafu.”
“You're a clown!” she exclaimed.
“I am not! I'm a lawyer! Now let's get
back to business. So, you say your name is Banana?”
the “doctor” said, as the little girl dissolved
Clara had just had an MRI at the Connecticut hospital.
“We're here for a follow-up for some treatments
she underwent,” said her dad, Stanley Kohrn. “That's
serious, so this is a nice counterpoint. It definitely
brightens the day.”
Dr. Bombafu and his colleague, Dr. Yadontsay – a.k.a.
veteran clowns Jeff Smithson and Joel Jeske – are
part of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program, a community
outreach effort celebrating its 20th birthday in 2006.
The brainchild of circus co-founder Michael Christensen,
a longtime clown himself, Clown Care prescribes laughter
for hospitalized children in 17 pediatric facilities nationwide.
The circus estimates the clown doctors make more than
250,000 bedside visits a year.
Christensen said his brother's death from pancreatic
cancer deepened his commitment to service, inspiring him
to create Clown Care. “In the beginning, as professional
clowns working in children's hospitals, we relied
on our talents, our experience, our instincts and our
hearts, all informed by the medical realities of a hospital,”
he said. “Twenty years later, with our hearts even
more present, we've created significant artistic
and administrative support structures to sustain and nourish
Clown Care is one of several circus outreach projects.
All are made possible, in large part, by the annual Opening
Night Gala, which raised more than $1million in 2004 and
takes place this year on November 4. The family event
kicks off the circus's 28th season running through
January 8 – featuring a new production, Grandma
Goes to Hollywood – at Lincoln Center's Damrosch
“Clown doctors from our national network of host
hospitals join us for a Parade of Big Apple Circus Clown
Care Clown Doctors right before the start of the Gala
performance,” said Gala vice-chairman Edward Adler.
“The audience – young and old alike –
just loves ‘em!”
Clown Care's seasoned performers conduct daily clown
rounds, visiting patient rooms, pre- and postoperative
wards, even emergency rooms. On a recent afternoon, Smithson
and Jeske played tag with a waiting room full of children,
blew bubbles over tiny patients in the emergency room
and did 15 minutes of shtick entirely in Spanish for one
Unlike the circus tent, the hospital setting forces abrupt
changes. Minutes before belting out La Bamba for one giggling
group, Smithson quietly played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little
Star on a xylophone for 11-month-old Grace Coble in the
pediatric treatment center, where children receive transfusions,
chemotherapy and other care.
“It's not all about laughs. Sometimes it's
just the power of your presence in the room,” said
David Spiro, M.D., who works in Yale's pediatric
emergency room, said the clowns offer everyone a break.
“They're great because this is a situation
where there can be a lot of sadness, a lot of stress,”
he said. “The experience goes better for little
kids when there are a couple of bubbles in the air.”
Nearing the end of their rounds, Smithson and Jeske strolled
to the primary care waiting room, which is usually filled
with sick children and their families. Turning a corner,
they were shocked to find not one child in the room. Jeske
laughed loudly. “Now this? This is a good sign!”