San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

When Going Gets Tough, Send In the Clowns

Flu epidemic or no flu epidemic, the clowns were going in. Two busloads of them.

Thirty-seven clowns in all.

The hospital workers weren’t quite sure what was going on. Clowns seem to have that effect on adults. Not so the children.

They welcomed the clowns with open arms, particularly those wearing plaster casts.

The clowns – professionally trained in the art of juggling, tickling and balloon-twisting – are members of the Gesundheit Institute and the School for Designing a Society, both international, non-governmental organizations established to improve health care systems and society.

Traveling in convoy from their Quaker hostel base to San José’s National Children’s Hospital on Sept. 11, the visiting clowns warmed up on their buses with improvised songs, such as “When the clowns go marching in” and “The clowns on the bus go round and round.”

While silliness was very much the order of the day, the reason behind the clowns’ descent on San José’s hospitals and clinics was an altogether more serious affair.

“Like doctors, it is the job of the clown to walk towards suffering,” said head clown, 21-year-old Melanie Meltzer from the state of Washington in the United States. “We are here on a humanitarian clowning mission, to deliver a bit of joy, care and sustenance to the children and help change health care for the better.”

The clowns are inspired by the work of Patch Adams, the U.S. physician depicted in the 1998 film named after him and starring Robin Williams. Adams is a professional clown and founder of the Gesundheit Institute, a free community hospital in the state of Virginia. The clowns tour the world prescribing Adams’ particular brand of medicine – a concoction of humor and play.This was the first mission for many of the clowns, so, as well as a one-week josh with the sick in three of the city’s health-care centers, the student clowns will participate in evening debates at the Quaker lodge in San José, Casa Ridgeway, and examine the role of the clown as an activist, among other topics.

Isabela Maia, a 26-year-old Brazilian and former Broadway actress who fled the bright lights for the circus, said, “I was doing Broadway but suddenly felt that my life had become empty and unfulfilling. I felt that I didn’t belong to anything of any importance.

“I decided to go to circus school in Brazil, a move that upset my parents who thought I would end up juggling on the streets for a living. But I told them it was something I needed to do.

“I studied clowning and aerial tricks before returning to New York and taking a Patch Adams course, where I got to meet him personally. I was completely inspired by his health care model, which isn’t controlled by insurance companies, and told him I wanted to get involved. I want to be a clown for the rest of my life.”

Despite the recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, which has resulted in some Costa Rican hospitals quarantining patients, the clowns gained access with the help of Patricia Aguilar, a National Children’s Hospital public relations representative.

Aguilar said, “Curing children is not just about the medicines they receive, but also the company and care of their parents and medical staff. Of course, if the clowns come in and make them smile, this will help.”

Pounding the ward in his over-sized boots, the 55-year-old Dutch clown known only as Tap, said, “I got into this because I wanted to do something with my heart. I have two sons in their twenties, and they don’t mind that I look foolish. What’s important is that I can bring a little sparkle of joy to a child’s eyes. That little sparkle is so important because it can make the difference between a good day and a bad day.”

Five-year-old Jimena Solís, of Escazú, who had just been for a check-up with her mother and was told she will have to have a back operation early next year, said of the clowns who were poking and tickling her, “I like them because they are funny.”

So what makes a good clown?

“A good clown is one who is open to whatever reaction he may get from the child and who respects others,” said Maia. It’s important to remember that a clown is not a character but, rather, the real you. So it’s all about accepting your flaws.”

See photo report at


Comments are closed.