Clown therapy: Hospital team helps patients, parents 'through the hard times'
Therapeutic clown program has helped thousands of youngsters who need a friend - and a smile
Riley Haveron is seven years old. He's been at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for nine weeks, but this isn't his first visit. He had a heart transplant at 14 months and has been in and out of hospital many times over the years.
He has a special friend who makes the visits a little easier, though.
"He's a clown and he's pretty fun," says Riley, of his friend A. Leboo.
This time Riley is here to treat painful ulcers that have grown down his esophagus. His mother lives in his room with him every time he's admitted.
"It's hard, it's very hard," Amanda Haveron says. "Seeing him in pain here is hard, and being away from my husband and my other two kids is hard too."
One thing that has been a salvation to her family, she says, is the hospital's therapeutic clown program. It has just celebrated its 25th year at the hospital, and Riley is one of thousands of kids who have benefited from it.
"They've helped with difficult times with him — if [hospital staff] are trying to get an IV in or doing blood work, just being a good distraction for him," Haveron says.
"But not even just that. If he's having a bad day, the clowns are something that just brightens Riley's day. They are a comfort for him, and a comfort for us too."
Currently there are two full time clowns on SickKids' staff, A. Leboo and Fern, brother and sister from a long line of imaginary rodeo clowns. They see patients as part of the hospital's Creative Arts Therapy Program.
Jamie Sneddon, who plays A. Leboo, is the hospital's senior clown. He's been in the job for 12 years, and says he's more surprised than anyone that he's managed to build a career out of playing with kids all day.
"It has been a big leap for me," Sneddon says. "I went to Loyola College and did broadcast journalism, I did 10 years in the news business, and thought I'd do that [as a career]. But it's been great and I really feel this is what I was supposed to do."
Sneddon was working in a busy newsroom in Toronto when he came across a story on the hospital's clown program, and says he was instantly drawn to the work. He researched the position, started taking improv classes and bided his time until an opening came up. He got the job on his second attempt, after first getting experience volunteering as a clown at local children's drop-in programs.
He hasn't looked back.
These days Sneddon personifies A. Leboo, a character he created that is larger than life. He is a celebrity in the hospital, adored by patients who know how to find him at any given time if they need a friend.
And he's depended on by medical staff and therapists for help when they're administering treatments to children who are often afraid, anxious or just plain tired of being poked and prodded by doctors and nurses.
"Most of my work is sessions, anywhere from five minutes to an hour, where I just visit kids in their rooms and play. We play cards, do bubbles, do magic, whatever they need," Sneddon says.
When they're really in the moment, they are scared and apprehensive … so we're there to play and distract until the moment-of.- Jamie Sneddon
"But, I've also gone into procedure rooms with kids. I've been there when they've had chest tubes taken out. And when they're really in the moment, they are scared and apprehensive … so we're there to play and distract until the moment-of."
Sneddon has performed that role more than once for Riley, and the interactions have always helped, his mother says.
Since many of SickKids' patients have a long relationship with the hospital, often being admitted several times over their lives, the bonds Sneddon forges can be quite strong.
"He does looper battles with me," says Riley. "Yesterday we did a video together."
Colm Bonfield, 9, has been in and out of hospital since he was a baby. He has a rare condition that affects his intestines and internal organs, and it brings him to the hospital roughly every 10 weeks for visits that can last weeks at a time.
This latest visit, though, is going on four months and the clown therapy program has been a huge comfort for him.
"Well, we do magic, he's a big magician," says Colm. "We do all sorts of stuff, we play chooby cubes, charades, UNO, lots of stuff."
There for everyone
Along with the lighthearted play Sneddon experiences daily, however, has come loss. It's a part of his work that he's had to learn to cope with.
"The first child I had a really close connection with who passed, I had to run, basically run, from a critical care unit to my office. I was crying before I got back to the door and I cried quite hard. I wept," Sneddon says.
"But I think you need to feel it, I think you need to be open to [the reality] that it's going to be sad, and I've found that the supports and the things I do to cope are working."
The program also helps parents cope.
"You need some kind of help in hospital," Colm says. "The way I describe it is it's like prison, and sometimes there are dark days. And that's what the clowns do — they help you get through the hard times."
His mother, who stays and works from Colm's room the entire time he is in hospital, credits the clowns with supporting her, too.
"You know, you can't control everything that happens in hospital, and there have been times that have not been easy for Colm. And as a parent you kind of feel helpless.
"And then a clown walks into the room and Colm's face changes, his attitude changes — and maybe a procedure he didn't want to do like literally five minutes before, he's now more comfortable doing, and it just changes the trajectory of the rest of the day. And that's invaluable when you're a parent that's here 24/7, and maybe at the end of their rope."
Sneddon has become a daily part of Colm's hospital stay this time around. Besides the one-on-one visits in his room, Colm also frequently joins a storytime that A. Leboo holds in the hospital's library some mornings, and a live taping of an in-house TV show he hosts as well.
Patients can be there as the clowns tape the program, which covers a variety of topics ranging from crafts to science experiments, or they can watch and call in to it from their rooms if they're too ill to be there in person.
Colm says he loves the show and storytime, but when asked to share ways that A. Leboo has helped him he remembers a particularly serious occasion.
"Once they were trying to put an NJ tube in [a feeding tube inserted through the nose into the intestine] and I was really stressed. They kept trying over and over and it just wasn't going in … then he came in, he made jokes and all sorts of things, then boom," Colm says.
For Sneddon, knowing he's having a real impact on the lives of kids in situations like that is what he loves about the job.
"It's very satisfying to have found the thing that I'm good at, to know that A. Leboo is loved," he says.
"He is making those connections with kids — they want to be around him, they want to play, and he is an important part of their journey here. It's pretty rewarding, it's pretty cool."
Watch The National's feature on the therapeutic clown program at SickKids hospital: