A Trip to Russia, Clowning, & Timing

By September 14, 2013 December 15th, 2015 Doctor-Patient Relationship


 Several years ago I took a trip to Russia with Patch Adams and 37 other people from around the world.  Our mission was to make kids, who were in other than ideal circumstances, laugh.  We all dressed up like clowns and paraded into different facilities every day, orphanages, hospitals, intensive care units, homes, and long term care institutions for kids with special needs.

I saw things I didn’t know existed.  Children who were born with TB and would spend the first several years of their lives in a hospital bed, having to be tied to the crib because there was not enough staff to be with them 24/7.  Orphanages where the kids may spend their entire lives, never getting to experience the feeling of being in a family.  Intensive care units where the parents were only allowed to visit twice a week.  It was heartbreaking and at the same time, such a big lesson about the subtleties of life, timing, and human connections.  The things in life that make us happy are each other, not our material things.Back to the red nose, this “clowning” was so uncomfortable for me that I wanted to jump out of my skin.  The trip commenced for a large part of the group at the gate of our transatlantic flight in the Dulles airport.  When I arrived after a quick flight from Charlotte, I nearly turned around and flew back when I saw every single person had donned full clown regalia for the international flight.  That memo saying “dress like a clown for the flight” was apparently not a joke like I thought it was.  I took a very deep breath and began introducing myself , but once on the plane, I wrote fast and furiously in my journal, asking what the H was I thinking signing up for this trip!  These people are crazy and they are going to get us all arrested!!!  The only reason I even entertained the idea of said trip, was because my beloved professor and mentor from medical school, had said to me in the spring of 2007, “Sheila, you must go to Russia in the fall, it will change your life”.  He had a very deep and serious cadence when he spoke and everything that came out of his mouth was like a bible verse to me, so I couldn’t just ignore him.  This brilliant cardiologist who understood the timing of life like no one else I had ever met, told me to go to Russia, and I was going to Russia.

The subtle moments that happen on a trip like that are constant.  The mix of cultures, languages, personalities, and emotion makes for daily epiphanies if you are open to it.  One of these moments happened for me when I was with two of my fellow clowns, in an apartment, clowning around with two kids with down syndrome and their mothers.  This was about the 8th or 9th day into the trip and I was getting the hang of how to shift the energy of a room without speaking the same language and without having a stethoscope around my neck.  At the beginning of the week I had all kinds of props to use to play with the kids, a little chalk board, crayons, notebooks, and all kinds of toys.  One of my Danish friends on the trip, Danomino, said to me, Sheila, leave the “stuff” ‘in the hotel.  You don’t need it…just “be” with the kids.  You’ll know what to do.  That was easy for him to say!  He had been clowning for years and was an actor on a children’s television show in Denmark.

Again I listened to someone I trusted and left my props at home…except for some bubbles and fingernail polish:)  Danomino, Ann, and I had the most amazing day with these two little girls and their mothers.  It felt like what I imagine improv dancing or comedy to feel like.  We laughed and played with the kids, moving effortlessly between and around them and one another, all the while reading body cues, facial expressions, voice tones; deciding when it was time to join in and play or to stay back and let the clown who was playing continue on.  I was so happy because I had been extremely nervous, self conscious and felt completely out of my element when we left the hotel, but when I became fully present and allowed my intuition and sense of timing to guide me, it was magical.

When we got back into the car Danomino looked at me and said, our interactions in there were filled with fingerspitzgefuehl.  I said, “hmmm, you got me Denmark, what does that mean?”  “It’s German for the fine touch at the tip of the finger.  It is something that cannot be taught and it is when one understands the subtlety’s of life, the innuendo, the timing.  He said not all clowns have it, and it is really important, especially when working with kids.  The ability to look at a situation and to notice it doesn’t seem to be going so well, maybe I can make a funny face at that child the turn the energy of the situation around or on the contrary, when an interaction is going well, knowing not to interrupt.  Danomino didn’t know it, but I thought he was paying me  a huge compliment.  I had felt like the worst clown on the trip, but he made me realize I could do this and I could make a difference in a child and family’s life, not by prescribing antibiotics, but by being present with them.

And the individuals I find to be most in tune to creativity and timing, are mothers.  As I observe mother’s in my office with their children, and out in the world, I forever marvel at their ability to understand the timing of their children.  To know when to coddle, to encourage, to support, to step out of the way, or to discipline.  It is one of the most beautiful things to watch and it goes un-noticed and unappreciated all the time.

I want all of you mothers to know, I notice, I marvel, and I admire that 6th sense.  And the next time you stave off a meltdown or an unfortunate situation because your timing was impeccable, pat yourself on the back, and know, that I am standing in the back ground admiring your ability to tune out the rest of the world, read your child’s cures, listen to your intuition and grab Johnny’s hand before it makes contact with the cheek of Suzie.  Especially you moms of kids with autism or special needs, your heightened sense of fingerspitzgefuehl should be bottled up and sold to every medical student in America.