Therapeutic clowns are back to spread joy in Montreal's hospitals and care homes

Armed with makeup and red noses, the Dr. Clown Foundation is once again bringing joy in Montreal's long-term care homes and children's wards.

Dr. Clown Foundation was on hiatus during the first year of the pandemic

Dr. Fifi (left) and Dr. Sanguine (right) are the clown alter-egos of performers from the Dr. Clown Foundation. (Submitted by The Dr. Clown Foundation)

Armed with makeup and red noses, the Dr. Clown Foundation is once again bringing joy in Montreal's long-term care homes and children's wards.

When the pandemic started, health institutions stopped any program deemed non-essential. That included the therapeutic clown service.

But, don't let the label fool you. "Non-essential" does not mean they don't make an impact on patients. And now that they're allowed back on hospital floors, the therapeutic clowns are a breath of fresh air for patients and residents.

Melissa Holland is a co-founder of the Dr. Clown Foundation. She describes therapeutic clowning as an art. It's about more than simply being goofy.

"I think the profession itself hinges a lot on listening," she said in an interview with Sabrina Marandola on CBC Montreal's Let's Go. "That includes being able to listen to yourself as well as being able to listen to patients in a deep way."

LISTEN | Melissa Holland says her process when clowning involves empathy and introspection

Montreal's therapy clowns

4 years ago
Duration 2:04
Therapeutic clowns use improv and physical comedy to put a smile on the faces of sick children at the Montreal Children's Hospital.

While they're allowed back on unit floors, the work comes with new challenges. As physical performers, the clowns normally use facial expressions to communicate all sorts of silliness. But, with masks on, they now focus on expressing through their eyes and body language.

Holland chooses one of two alter egos when she performs. One is called Chérie Labelle, and the other Dr. Fifi. Each character draws on Holland's natural personality traits, and cranks them up to 11. The result? A clown who is able to connect with young patients or older residents, and lighten their day.

Joy Gandell is a parent whose child underwent chemotherapy. The intense treatments made it difficult for her daughter to smile like she used to.

But when the clowns came around, something magical happened. Her daughter started laughing. The visits continued almost weekly for 10 months after that.

"They show that it's okay to be happy at a dark time in our lives," Gandell said of the clowns. "I will forever be grateful for what they did that first day that we met them"

This kind of work can be difficult on performers' mental health, Holland admits. That's why they work in pairs, leaning on each other for support when they need it. They also have access to a psychosocial director, and monthly group meetings to debrief together.

Holland discovered the concept of clown doctors in Scotland. When she came back to Montreal, she realized the city didn't have a program like this one. And after meeting some like-minded people, she went to work getting Dr. Clown off the ground.

She doesn't always get to see the long-term effects of her work. But, she believes her work is having a positive impact.

"It's not just a nice-to-have," she said, adding that there's joy everywhere "and it's the clown's job to spark it."


Eric Dicaire

CBC editorial assistant

Eric Dicaire is a CBC Montreal editorial assistant working from home during the pandemic.

with files from CBC Montreal's Let's Go