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Giggles, M.D.: the life of a medical clown

05/03/2012 04:01 EDT | Updated 07/03/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Nimrod Eisenberg never wanted to enter the family business — medicine.

He went to theatre school against his parents' wishes. He worked as an actor, an acrobat and a circus clown — fields far removed from the careers of his parents, his father being a doctor and his mother a midwife.

But the fates had other plans for him. That pull of destiny, or perhaps of heredity, brought Eisenberg closer to mom and dad, in his own unique way.

The Israeli man is now a professional "medical clown" — a red-nosed bringer of cheer to couples with fertility problems.

"I was the one who ran away from the family destiny, who did not want to go work in a hospital," he said Thursday. "Eventually, in a twist of fate, I'm immersed in hospitals, doctors and nurses."

Medical clowning is part of a broader Israeli project Eisenberg joined 10 years ago called Dream Doctors, which brings "clowning therapy" to hospitals. It's based on the idea that the presence of clowns during medical treatment can help improve patients' success rate.

He and his partner-in-clown, Jerome Arous, arrived in big floppy shoes and bright red noses at the Royal Victoria Hospital's fertility wing in Montreal on Thursday, hoping to bring some levity to patients undergoing in-vitro fertilization treatments.

The head of the fertility centre is withholding judgment. There has been an Israeli study showing some benefit to the practice, but Dr. Hananel Holzer says he has yet to see a large enough study that confirms any medical impact from clowns.

"Is it really true? I am not convinced. Not yet," Holzer said. "Of course we are all skeptical when we hear this.

"But the main objective is to make patients feel better, to see a smile on their face."

The mood in the waiting room did become noticeably lighter Thursday as Eisenberg cradled and rocked a teapot under his arm — which he called his "clown baby" — and joked with patients and nurses.

He even dropped to one knee to dramatically serenade one woman, who laughed in delight.

Later, with reporters, Eisenberg peeled off the rubber clown nose to speak earnestly about his passion for the unconventional profession. He swears it's no joke, and can actually make a real difference in people's lives, just like his mom and dad have.

"The art of clowning, of improvisation and acting on the spot... I believe it can make a huge difference in therapy and treatment, both of children and of adults," he said.

"When the spirit is up, when people are happy... they receive the treatment better."

The 37-year-old performer from Tel Aviv takes the job of clowning quite seriously; he even holds a degree in "medical clowning" — yes, it's an actual bona-fide bachelor's degree — from the University of Haifa in Israel.

The school's website shares a story about the work graduates did in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

It quotes one of the commanders of the Israeli relief team: "What is a clown doing here?"

It goes on to say that this stern commander broke into a smile upon hearing the explanation, to which clown Dudi Barashi is quoted saying: "You see! If you are smiling now, when we are surrounded by this tragedy, then I suppose I am doing my work."

That same principle is being applied to couples undergoing fertility treatments.

At the reproductive medical unit of the McGill University Hospital Centre, Holzer says a little positivity can lighten an otherwise serious situation.

"Going through fertility treatments is very difficult for couples," he said. "Studies show it's like undergoing chemotherapy — the amount of stress that the couple goes through."

"The goal is to make the patients feel better, to put a smile on their face."

One patient, Alessandra Suzzi, said she had been to the clinic many times, and had undergone successful IVF treatments there in the past; she has a two-year-old son, Leonardo, and is hoping for another child.

She said the clowns' visit managed to brighten what might have been a stressful day.

"They make me forget about issues, about problems, you know? They make me smile," said Suzzi. "This is the most important thing, starting the day with a smile and positive feelings."

When asked specifically why clowns are chosen for this kind of pre-treatment therapy, Eisenberg had a simple answer.

They can be stubborn — as stubborn as the call of medical duty.

"You can't stop a clown," he said.

"Even for myself, I can’t help it."

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