Not what the doctor ordered - surprise and sadness after Clown Doctors' contract with Starship is terminated

Thomas Petschner, founder of Clown Doctors New Zealand, doing what he does best.
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Thomas Petschner, founder of Clown Doctors New Zealand, doing what he does best.

The Clown Doctors at Starship Children's Hospital and being dumped in favour of virtual reality and play therapists.

Parents are unhappy to see the clowns go, saying they help ease the stress for kids on the wards. 

But the Starship Foundation which has paid for the clowns for seven years said there was a shift of focus to "clinical imperatives such as play specialists."

Kate Chandulal, 13, suffers from Crouzon syndrome and scoliosis.
TORIKA TOKALAU/FAIRFAX NZ

Kate Chandulal, 13, suffers from Crouzon syndrome and scoliosis.

Clown Doctors are not medical doctors, they are trained clowns who dress up as doctors.

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Founder and chief executive of the Clown Doctors New Zealand Charitable Trust, Thomas Petschner, said he was "very surprised" by the decision to dump them.

Left to right: Stephen Hollins (Dr. P.P. Rony), Rowan Ford Dawson (Dr. D.C.), Jude Bishop (Dr. U Who) and Hannah ...
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Left to right: Stephen Hollins (Dr. P.P. Rony), Rowan Ford Dawson (Dr. D.C.), Jude Bishop (Dr. U Who) and Hannah McQuilkan (Dr. Strut Her Stuff).

The Clown Doctors' contract with Starship is up at the end of May. 

Petschner said it came as a shock and he didn't understand the motivation behind redirecting funding. 

He said he was told funds were being redirected into play therapists and virtual reality.

The Clown Doctors were the highlight of Zach Shanahan-Trainer's week-long stay in hospital, mother Jo said.
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The Clown Doctors were the highlight of Zach Shanahan-Trainer's week-long stay in hospital, mother Jo said.

"We were getting 100 per cent in patient satisfaction surveys ... it seemed like kind of a no brainer," Petschner said.

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"We're here to help children in need."

Thirteen-year-old Kate Chandulal​ has Crouzon​ syndrome, and has spent most of her life in Starship Hospital.

Clown doctors Pick Me Up and Gaggle Giggle at Starship Hospital.
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Clown doctors Pick Me Up and Gaggle Giggle at Starship Hospital.

During her time on the wards, she has undergone 122 operations, and has developed an anxiety disorder as a result, mum Bridget Chandulal said.

"Anything to do with waiting for surgery, the equipment, or even testing makes her very anxious now," her mum said.

But the Clown Doctors eased her fears. "Kate just adores them. It's such a shame to lose them," Chandulal said. 

Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital.
FAIRFAX NZ

Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital.

"Their presence just takes your mind off things and brings a bit of fun and normalcy back."

Clown Doctor Zack McCracken - Dr Cracker as she is known at Starship - said: "We allow kids to access the part of themselves that gets forgotten in a hospital." 

McCracken recalled getting through to a patient who hadn't smiled in a week by performing a badly-sung rendition of Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire.

His mum pulled the Clown Doctors aside and thanked them, saying she never thought he would laugh again.

"The rest of the hospital staff don't have time to do that, but it's really important."

McCracken said being a Clown Doctor was not just about fun though - it also allowed kids to be sad. 

Tapping into a sick child's emotions and connecting on a therapeutic level while trying to alleviate their stress takes a significant mental and physical toll, she said. 

Chief executive of the Starship Foundation, Brad Clarke, and general manager of Starship Child Health, Emma Maddren, issued a joint statement.

"Starship Child Health and the Starship Foundation reached a decision that the funding support provided to Clown Doctors New Zealand Charitable Trust, will end on 31 May." 

"The decision was due to a shift in funding priorities to focus more on clinical imperatives such as play specialists," they said. 

The statement said the Clown Doctors service had been funded by the "generosity" of individuals and corporate donors. 

Clarke and Madden said the service had been valued, and they wished to recognise the "commitment and dedication" the Clown Doctors have brought to Starship's wards. 

The Clown Doctor programme was launched in Christchurch in 2009. Six months later a pilot programme began at Starship, which was officially picked up in June 2010.

Thirty Clown Doctors work across Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. They also partnered with the Selwyn Foundation, providing palliative care and support for the elderly in 10 North Island facilities. 

 - Sunday Star Times

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