The Current

Mollypenny the hospital clown is retiring, leaving some big shoes to fill

CHEO is about to lose an important specialist to retirement: Mollypenny the therapeutic clown.

Nurse Ruth Cull, a.k.a. Mollypenny, has been cheering up sick kids since 2001

A woman dressed as a clown, with blue hair, and a red nose.
Ruth Cull, a.k.a. Mollypenny, has been a therapeutic clown at CHEO for more than two decades. (Submitted by CHEO)

As her alter ego Mollypenny the clown, nurse Ruth Cull has spent two decades bringing joy to sick children at an Ottawa hospital, while helping them process what they're going through.

"One little boy wanted to send his cancer to outer space," said Cull, who is set to retire next month from her role at the CHEO.

Doctors had performed tests on the boy, and were waiting for results to come back from the lab, she told The Current's Matt Galloway. The child, perhaps believing the tests contained the cancer itself, insisted on having the report returned to him, so he could send it away. 

Donning her bright blue wig, big shoes and shiny red nose, Mollypenny was happy to help. 

"We went on to an undisclosed location … and he launched it by balloons, and so there it went," she said. "I think now he might be 24, 25 [years old]."

A woman dressed as a clown talks to children at a booth,
Mollypenny talks with children at a CHEO event. (Submitted by CHEO)

Cull started work as an operating room nurse at CHEO in 1974. When she retired from those duties, she took on the role of Mollypenny in 2001. She will retire on Oct. 31. CHEO is now looking for a new therapeutic clown to help patients. 

A press release from the hospital quoted the clown as saying it's time "to climb aboard the spaceship MollyPop," and join her good friends JelloHead and Tonker in (the fictional) Galaxy Sprinkle — recently "pictured for the first time by the James Webb Telescope," on the outskirts of the (very real) Cartwheel Galaxy.

Over her 21 years as a therapeutic clown, she's helped hundreds of families, including Catherine Sands and her now 15-year-old son Gabriel, who was treated for a critical burn at CHEO when he was eight years old.

Gabriel remembers being tired all the time, but Mollypenny "gave me energy every day."

His mom Catherine remembers her impact as well.

"Mollypenny just walked into the room one day and I saw my son light up," she said.

"She didn't have to say anything, just walking in, and he felt like, 'Hey, this is a cool place to be.'"

LISTEN | Mollypenny meets up with one of her biggest fans, Gabriel Sands:

Montreal's therapy clowns

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

'Amazing distraction medicine'

Cull wanted to get involved in therapeutic clowning as a way to use humour to help sick kids. She took a course at clown college to prepare for her therapeutic work, but found the classes were focused on theatre and performance. So she had to learn on the job, relying on plenty of help from her colleagues.

If a child was upset or not doing what doctors and nurses needed them to do, Mollypenny would pay them an unannounced visit. 

"I'd go in and I'd just sit there sometimes, and Brenda, [a nurse,] would come in later and she says, 'Is this clown bothering you?'" Cull said. 

Mollypenny would then protest that she wasn't bothering anyone, proceed to bicker with the nurse, and "pretty soon the kid would be laughing, and trying to figure out what is going on here," Cull said. 

Improving the kid's mood usually meant an easier time with treatment, and Caul always strived to make the hospital a fun and friendly environment. 

She always focused on empowering the kids, and listening to what they had to say.

A big pair of red clown shoes
When Cull retires, she leaves some big shoes to fill. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

That included "giving them the option to tell me to leave if they want, because they have no control within the hospital setting," she said. 

Dr. Donna Johnston, chief of hematology and oncology at CHEO, said Cull "will be missed more than she can even imagine."

Mollypenny provides "an amazing distraction medicine that works better than many things that we do," she said.

"She's changed the way our kids get treatment and she's changed the way we treat kids — and really for the better."

Clowning helps parents too

Melissa Holland, who works as therapeutic clown Dr. Fifi, said her work is also helpful for parents.

"The child's … nature is to want to play, and so, you know, in whatever state they're in, we try to find a way to be able to play with them," said Holland, co-founder of the Dr. Clown Foundation, which places clowns in hospitals and long-term care facilities across Quebec. 

WATCH | Therapy clowns spread joy at Montreal Children's Hospital:

When parents see their child having fun, it "goes a long way in helping them recalibrate and say, 'Oh right, okay, this is just a moment right now. My kid is still a kid and needs to play,'" she said. 

That can "help them maybe reset and be able to have more elements of play, and be more playful themselves," she said.

Holland said the practice of therapeutic clowning has grown over the last 30 years around the world. In 2015, Argentina legislated all hospitals in the country to have one.

Cull said she feels "truly blessed" to have played the role of Mollypenny, using humour to help families. 

She said she'll miss her work at the hospital, but might reprise the role from time to time. As Mollypenny said in her retirement announcement, "the great thing about being a clown is space travel is so much easier than for regular astronauts.

"That means I may be able to come back to visit CHEO and my Earthling friends every now and then."

A badge that reads Temporarily Out of Service
Cull retires on Oct. 31. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Produced by Alison Masemann, Kate Cornick and Brianna Gosse

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