It seems like a job that would be filled with fun and frivolity, but this clown doctor has revealed the highs and lows of working with sick children.
It seems like a job that would be filled with fun and frivolity, but this clown doctor has revealed the highs and lows of working with sick children.

The heartbreak and absolute joy of being a clown doctor

When I was training to become a clown doctor, I was taught early on that we're everybody's friend and everything is interesting.

That mindset has always stayed with me and keeps me grounded.

I've been a clown doctor at the Queensland Children's Hospital for about eight years and came to the job from a theatre and performance background.

I've always loved the interactive side of theatre and have gravitated towards it most of my life.

I grew up in Warwick and at school, I'd always choose the drama subjects.

In the holidays, before I started Grade 12, I did a week residency with the Queensland Theatre Company. It sparked something in me.

Clown Doctor Robbie O’Brien (Dr Robbie O'Dear).
Clown Doctor Robbie O’Brien (Dr Robbie O'Dear).

After school I initially studied visual arts at university but I did theatre shows on the side with a group of friends.

We were always trying to come up with fun shows that weren't just Shakespeare productions.

We were all about the participatory productions, the ones with lots of audience interactions. I often think, I don't need to leave the house to see great shows with great actors and directors, I can get those compelling stories at home on Netflix.

The things that get me out of the house are the shows that come to life and only happen with a live audience.

I love that each of those shows will offer something different every time.

I was doing a show called Sticky Maze, an interactive maze, in Melbourne with a company called Polyglot when I first heard about Clown Doctors.

Through that experience, my name was put forward to audition to become a Clown Doctor with the Humour Foundation, and it sounded right up my alley.

I joined the team in 2012 as a Clowntern (like an intern) and spent the next year with a mentor who guided me.

Robbie O'Dear the clown doctor at work.
Robbie O'Dear the clown doctor at work.

It was a lengthy process before I became a full member of the College of Idiots, as we call it. It was worth it, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs.

Once I get to the hospital, I change into my outfit, become Dr O'Dear, and roam around the hospital wards and corridors spreading joy.

We do everything from magic tricks to songs and even comedy routines.

It's a role with highs and lows. Often, we're next to the kids to keep them distracted when they're having painful procedures or being given their medicine and that can be tough to watch.

We regularly visit the burns ward and roam everywhere we can.

I'm never focusing on how sad it is, I'm looking at the kid and doing whatever they want to do that can help them have fun and play in that moment.

We really listen to them, we are there for the kids and not their illness or injury.

We will always find a way to play with them that is appropriate to their mobility or illness. We also can just be there to talk, it doesn't always have to be silly.

I feel privileged to have the job I do.

Sometimes we're told from parents that it's the first time they've seen their child laugh in two weeks or they haven't heard them speak in weeks and the first thing they said was something to us, likely asking us to run into the wall one more time.

Robbie O'Dear the clown doctor at work.
Robbie O'Dear the clown doctor at work.

It makes you feel great hearing things like that. Of course, we see tough things. But we do have support and counselling services to help us if we need and debrief at the end of every shift.

But we've been trained to do what we do in a way that benefits everyone.

We're human. We're not those creepy clowns with the happy faces painted on that often frighten people.

We can be happy, sad, angry, tired and we use those emotions; we don't have to pretend.

If the child is feeling any of those emotions we find a game to suit, we never tell them to feel a certain way.

At the end of each day, I go home to my family; my wife, Brooke, and kids Tilly, 9, and Felix, 6.

The kids are still into my silly jokes. They just think their dad runs into walls for a living but I'm sure they will find it embarrassing one day.

As well as working at the hospital, I also teach drama subjects at Queensland University of Technology and I've been able to continue both jobs, albeit slightly differently at times, during COVID.

It's perhaps more important than ever to be spreading joy when the world is so uncertain.

If I can keep kids smiling when they're going through something tough and bring positivity into their lives, I'm doing my job.

 

Originally published as The heartbreak and absolute joy of being a clown doctor