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 Liz Hughes

Liz Hughes Head of ACCA Ireland

Be Inspired Series

Elaine Duncan

Clown Doctor
Northern Ireland Clown Doctors

What does your role as a clown doctor involve?

The most important thing we do is make children smile, laugh and relax in hospital. Being in a hospital can be a daunting experience for a child. It can be very stressful.

For children in hospital for prolonged periods it can also be quite boring. So we go in and help them cope with their treatment. We play, make them laugh, give them a distraction. In my clown doctor character, Dr. Twinkle, I go on the wards with one of my other fellow clown doctors and we help spread fun and laughter, moving from bed to bed, ward to ward, helping relax the atmosphere, helping children forget about their worries and their treatment.

Why is what you do important for the wellbeing of sick children?

Can you imagine what it must be like if you are a young child on a ward full of machines making noises, with people you don't know, in a place that may make you feel frightened? Feeling like that makes it harder for treatment to take effect.

Laughter is very good for your health. From a medical point of view, laughter produces endorphins (the body's pain killers), it increases blood flow and it also relaxes the body and soothes tension. From a care point of view, it also helps children cope with treatment and makes them less anxious. And playing is very important for children. It's no laughing matter!

What sort of games and entertainment do you provide, and what benefits do they have? How do kids respond?

All the play we do is improvised and led by the child. For example, we could be having a silly conversation with a child and something we say may capture their imagination and suddenly we're off on an exciting made-up journey through the jungle or into space.

We use our clown doctor characters as the basis from which we interact with the children.
There is no rigid outline to what we do. The child takes us where they want us to go and we go along for the ride playing and making them laugh! Everything is done at the child's level.
It helps that the clown doctors themselves are big children at heart! The children really enjoy what we do and it's not just the children, it's the parents and staff. Nothing reassures and anxious parent more than seeing their child laugh and have fun.

What's the perception of what you do among medical staff?

We have a really good relationship with the medical staff.

NI ClownDoctors has been making regular weekly visits to the children's wards in the acute hospitals across Northern Ireland for over five years. As a result, the staff on many of the wards think of us as part of the care team and look forward to the days on which we visit.

How did you get to be in this type of work in the first place?

I've been a performer and workshop leader for many years in various environments so the Clown doctor opportunity really caught my eye.

When I was recruited I had to attend an audition, which was a full-on, day long physical workshop when we were completely put through our paces by the director of ClownDoctors and two international clown doctors. From the audition day five others and I were selected to be the first team of clown doctors in Northern Ireland.

Have you always worked in drama/performing. What training do you have?

I've had jobs in other industries but I've always come back to performance work.
I trained as an actress, starting at 16 on a BTEC in Performing Arts in Belfast Institute, before going on to an HND in Drama at Newcastle College in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Then I was able to transfer to The University of Sunderland to make my HND up to a Degree in Creative Arts Studies.

What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do and the biggest challenges you face?

The rewards are many and they come in the form of smiles and giggles! This may sound cheesy, but it is the best thing is hearing a child laughing when they were perhaps a bit down and withdrawn before you called in.

Who or what has inspired you most in your life and career?

My Parents. They are my main inspiration. They have always been supportive of my rather unusual career path. They are so warm, caring and interested in other people that when, on occasion, I'd arrive home with a group of friends I'd made on some course or other, all of whom were looking for beds for the night, and it's never phased them for a second, they just opened the doors wide and welcomed my new friends in.

In my career, I've probably been most inspired by other women working locally in the arts. Jan Branch, who set up the Northern Ireland ClownDoctors, is an inspiration on so many levels not least because of her determination that Northern Ireland needed a clown doctor team and although it took a very long time to get NICDs started, start we did!

Patricia Downey of Spanner in the Works Theatre Company is another inspiration, as she's worked so hard over the past 10 years to build up her company, taking theatre to people who wouldn't usually see it.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

"Don't give up!" There isn't always a lot of acting or performing work available and there are usually more roles for men than for women in theatre. So remain positive and remember what brought you to acting and performing in the first place.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not clown doctoring?

I enjoy going to the cinema and catching up with my friends. Also I learnt to fence in college and I train every week at Stormont Fencing Club in Holywood. I prefer fencing to going to the gym or anything like that as it's a bit different, it's challenging and the people at my club are so friendly and we have some great nights out together. I'm very interested in holistic therapies and have done a number of Reiki courses over the past few years and I'd like to learn more skills in this area as I think it's good to keep broadening your horizons and to be open to new things.

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