Smiles That Matter: The Woman Who Heals Children with Serious Illness by Using Medical Clowning Therapy

New Delhi, January 10– Remember the experiment of giving hugs or ‘Jaadu ki Jhappi’ by Munna bhai to make patients feel that someone is there for them, in the film ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’? Now, imagine if someone really visits the hospital just to bring smiles on the faces of the patients and make them great about themselves.

Well, at least there is one woman, who moves from one hospital to another to spread hope and happiness among the children who are battling life-threatening ailments.

As medical clowning or Therapeutic Clowning is gaining traction in many cities professionally, Sheetal Agrawal, who leads her organization Clownselors, found her calling of playing medical clown to kids in 2016 when she joined Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya in East Delhi. Since then, she has come a long way touching lives of numerous kids.

Healthwire (HW) speaks to Sheetal Agarwal (SA) about her passion of creating magic of smile on people’s faces, what inspired her to take clown therapy and her journey so far.

HW. How did you start clowning therapy? Tell us something about Clownselors?

SA: I have been obsessed with smiling since childhood and always believed that smile is magical. As a child, we use to visit orphanages and old age homes and I could not do much but would only smile. But, I never knew that it could actually heal people until January 2016 when for the first time I heard the term ‘medical clown’.

It so happened that I met a woman named Dhara in Ahmedebad who introduced herself as a medical clown. I was intrigued as I was always fascinated by clowns in circus. I came to Delhi, researched about medical clowning and wanted to try it myself. I contacted Dhara to know if someone is doing this in Delhi too. There was no one. I somehow could not give up the thought and wanted to do it. One fine day Dhara said why don’t you start it. So I wrote to Delhi government’s Health Ministry seeking permission for the same and wrote a Facebook post asking how many people would like to volunteer. I got 33 positive responses. After a few meetings, permission to me was granted on July 9, 2016 to start Clowning Therapy at Chacha Nehru Baal Chikitsalaya with five volunteers. I had found my calling. I quit my teaching job in 2018, a full-time clown now to take clowning to more hospitals. There has been no looking back since then.

I also run Clownselors, a volunteer based group engaged in medical clowning. Dressed up as clowns, we interact and perform different acts for children and even adults. We use humour to expedite the healing process at hospitals, along with sessions at old age homes, mental homes, orphanages, special schools, shelter homes, refugee camps, schools, universities and workplaces. We also organize free hugs.

HW. What is the idea behind medical clowning?

SA. The idea behind clowning is simple, to distract from pain and reduce stress and anxiety in patients, care givers and care providers and make hospitals less vulnerable space making the atmosphere more lively and humane. Providing support in times of distress while ensuring that no hospital bed denies a person his/her right to be happy.

HW. How many hospitals are associated with your NGO?

SA. We have been clowning every Saturday at Chacha Nehru Bal chikitsalaya since July 2016. I have been visiting Apollo every week for pediatric cancer patients once a week since 2018. Other hospitals we have covered are Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi, Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital (Lady Hardinge), Delhi, Kailash Hospital, Noida, Medanta Medicity, Gurugram, ITS Dental College, Ghaziabad, SRCC Hospital (Narayana Health), Mumbai, Guru Tegh Bahadur (GTB) Hospital, Delhi, Moti Nagar Hospital, Delhi, Dr Hedgewar Arogya Sansthan, Delhi, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, Surya Hospital, Jaipur, Jindal Hospital, Hisar (Haryana), Asha Kiran Home for Mentally Retarded, Delhi, Civil Hospital KLE Hospital, Belgaum (Karnataka) and KLE Hospital, Belgaum (Karnataka).

HW. So far, how have your patients responded to the therapy?

SA. At first, everyone is amused to see a clown at the hospital. Very few people are aware of medical clowning including doctors. Once we start playing and engaging with patients, the whole atmosphere changes. Children who have been sick and crying start playing and jumping around, kids who avoid eating, start eating as clowning distracts the patients from pain. The response has been positive. Parents and guardians feel relieved seeing their children happy. We always hear parents say ‘now he/she will be fine as they are laughing now’; ‘my child looks better already’.

Last month while clowning at Apollo, I met a girl in the corridor, she has been around for a while so recognized the clown and immediately started playing and we raced to her bed. Her mother said to the doctor that a moment ago she wasn’t ready to walk on her as she felt sick and weak feeling, look at her now. The girl could be seen laughing, engaging beautifully in play and did not look sick. The doctor had also responded to the parent of the child, ‘that is why she comes (referring to me) and she is a clown doctor. What we as doctors can’t do, she does it. Unfortunately children feel worse at hospitals so clown doctor comes in to spread happiness and make them feel better’. This made me great about my work.

HW. How you approached the hospitals for this idea?

SA. When I started, my focus was only government hospitals so I approached the health ministry. Through Chacha Nehru, other hospitals came to know about this therapy. In 2018 when Apollo hospitals approached us for clowning I realized how clowning is needed at every hospital. We started writing to hospitals seeking permission and some hospitals started approaching us for the same. Through Healthwire we would hope that other healthcare institutions also understand our work and we can start clowning at more hospitals. The biggest challenge we face is to make hospital authorities understand the importance of
clowning as a therapy.

HW. What is your future plan?

SA. We hope to cover maximum hospitals in Delhi NCR and start clowning in other cities as well. We are soon starting a Clownselors chapter in Hisar, Haryana. We hope to start chapter(s) of Clownselors in every city and neighboring villages with volunteers joining in and taking the mission forward. Also, collaborating with different organizations to spread clowning far and wide. In next 5 years, we hope to make people aware of Medical Clowning Therapy and clowning to be recognized as a therapy all over India. Our mission is to reach the remotest parts of the country and to help ensure better healthcare facilities for all and our vision is to see doses of laughter given some importance as medicine and Clowning is introduced in all care centers, schools and workplaces.

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