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Is Laughter the Best Medicine? - 2001-07-29


For many years, the U.S. magazine Reader's Digest has featured a section called "Laughter is the Best Medicine." Robin Williams' hit movie "Patch Adams," about a clowning medical student who comforts young cancer patients, echoed this theme. A real-life hospital clown also brightens the days of the sick, confused and dying.

As Tunkle the Clown, 54-year-old Korey Thompson bubbles into the world of desperately ill children at Milwaukee's Children's Hospital. Another day, she's spreading mirth to disoriented dementia patients at a nursing home. Her work is called "therapeutic clowning."

"You can be in one room where someone's just gotten wonderful news. The tumors have abated, and people are dancing around," says Korey Thompson. "You go to the next room, and they've just found three more tumors. You have to be able to take a deep breath between those two rooms. You don't walk into a room where a difficult diagnosis has just been announced and tell a joke."

In the antiseptic world of white lab coats, stern faces, suffering and sadness, Tunkle is a rare delight. She's dressed in baggy blue pants, flaming red socks, a loose white shirt, gaudy red scarf. Shocks of blue hair protrude from a bowler hat into which a garish yellow flower has been stuck. Exaggerated red lips and a big red dot on her cheek radiate from her painted white face.

Tunkle approaches elderly patients gently, pretending to be as shy as they are, then invites them to hug, to play, to make exercise fun for a change. Pretty soon the whole room is laughing, and patients who may have stared vacantly are giggling, peeking from behind their purses, reaching to touch Tunkle's hand.

Dawn Adler is a recreation therapist at the eldercare facility that Korey Thompson is visiting. She notes that two of the residents, suffering from acute schizophrenia, spend all day, every day, staring straight ahead, showing no emotion. "And this is one of the few if any times that I ever see them respond with a laugh or a smile or any facial expressions," she says. "You didn't notice, but the staff was all sitting there going, 'Oh, my goodness, look at her, look at her.' And it was wonderful. That sense of joy was very evident. This wasn't just plain old exercises. This was fun."

The woman who would become Tunkle the Clown studied psychology and religion in school, worked as a community activist, then sold real estate, all the while working as a commercial clown called "Phoenix Blue." She says of her current character, "Tunkle's a little dumber. Tunkle speaks. Phoenix Blue was silent. And when I started working with dementia patients, they would say, 'Who are you?' And I thought it was very rude not to answer."

Korey Thompson's work is funded by the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. She says the very young and the very old are more alike than different, though the young live in the moment and dementia patients in a world of their own. Therapeutic clowning, she says can make a connection, ease tension, build trust. It can be a springboard to hope and healing.

"One of the things I love about clowning is, when you get these little wispy ideas, you can just act them out," says Ms. Thompson. "If somebody comes down the hall, and he's going (in a childlike voice) 'oop-doop-doop', you can do that back to him, and he laughs! You have fun. Now if you did that in civilian clothes, it would be rude. Sometimes when you take off your makeup, and your mind does not remember you're not in makeup, and you do that, it's sort of embarrassing."

Korey Thompson says that on the way to the hospital, she wonders whether she will be able to handle what she's about to see - perhaps a dying child or a faltering adult, laughing for the last time at her zany face and wiggly puppets and silly green frogs. But she's there for them, again and again, in greasepaint and costume, connecting others with the heart of a clown.