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Funny Bones clown club: Tickles away the hurt

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Fighting sickle cell anemia, Denay Flournoy could have reason to mope. But there she was, grinning, cackling, letting loose with explosions of laughter that rattled her hospital bed.

"You made my day!" Flournoy told the clowns entertaining her at St. Anthony's Hospital.

Jortis Webb, who goes by the name of Balor, was one of them. He asked Flournoy if she would like some brownies and popped open a box under her nose.

Inside were several capital E's, cut large from brown paper. Other E's had glued to them a few of those little mechanical devices that go with bolts.

"A brown E with nuts!" Flournoy chortled. "Get it?"

The occasion was "clown rounds" day at St. Anthony's. Patients on floors and in their rooms recently got a dose of hilarity from four members of the hospital's Funny Bones Clown Club.

Besides Balor, there were Garbonzo (Joe Dobson), Bertha-Cow-A-Hiney (Bonnie Carter), and Stumpy (Gil Peri), who stands 6 feet 8 -- without the giant, red fright wig.

Even the entourage following the clowns had to put on a bit of costume.

"It's amazing what one red nose can do. It breaks down all kinds of communication barriers," said Peri, coordinator of the clown program. He's also the business development manager of the BayCare Health System wellness services.

The clown program has about a dozen members, who also represent the hospital in parades and community events.

But perhaps their most important function is cheering up the patients, many of them seriously ill.

A similar program operated at St. Anthony's in 1990, but dissolved as members went elsewhere.

"My idea was like Patch Adams. He's the ultimate clown in a health care setting," Peri said, referring to the Robin Williams movie, based on a true story, about humor as a curative.

But it's more than a funny picture show. Medical authorities writing in such publications as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Journal of Psychosocial Oncology and the American Journal of Nursing cite laughter's therapeutic properties.

For example, laughing is said to increase the heart rate and stimulate circulation. It builds up muscles that keep the lungs pumping. And, for the abdominal wall, there may be nothing like a good belly laugh.

Moreover, laughter raises the level of an arousal hormone that could help in the release of endorphins, the body's naturally produced painkillers. Several studies have suggested humor might be useful as an effective intervention for chronic or acute pain.

Funny Bones members learn to become certified therapeutic clowns by attending eight three-hour classes. They study makeup, creating costumes, skits, patient interaction, ethics and clowning history. The first group of clowns graduated on Nov. 19.

"My family wondered how long it would take me to realize I'm a clown," said Webb. He's the lead computer operator at Bayfront Medical Center.

Dobson, who works in the BayCare center for learning, said he had always wanted to be a clown. He collects clowning memorabilia, such as figurines, and showed off one about 6 inches tall. "That's me when I was a baby," Dobson said.

Carter works in accounts receivable at St. Anthony's. Her persona, Bertha-Cow-A-Hiney, features a magnificent bustle. Riding on it is a grass-skirted Hawaiian figure holding a ukulele. Patients -- and hospital staff and strolling visitors, for that matter -- invariably gape, smirk or comment.

That, too, has been a benefit of the clowning, say those who participate. It improves staff morale and enhances the hospital's image.

"If Patch Adams can do it there, we can do it here," Peri said.

To help

If you're interested in becoming a certified therapeutic clown, call Dani Walter, 825-1434.

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