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Laughter and smiles, just what the doctor ordered

If you were to peek inside a doctor’s bag, you might find a stethoscope, tongue depressors and gauze. Cari Brackett’s bag, however, contains some nontraditional items.

“I never leave home without my noisemaker,” Brackett said, as she pulled out what looked like a mini-radio that emits funny noises. “I can use it with anybody. It always makes people laugh.”

Bubbles, balloons, mismatched socks and a big, red clown nose are some other necessities Brackett carries with her. That’s because Brackett is not a traditional doctor. Brackett, a clinical professor in the College of Pharmacy, practices “health care clowning” and is the adviser to Ohio State’s health care clowning group, Prescription for a Smile.

The group, started by Brackett last year, is a service organization comprised of about a dozen graduate students from the College of Pharmacy, who learn how to use clowning while practicing medicine. Brackett started the group after traveling to Russia for a clowning trip with Patch Adams, a pioneer in health care clowning and the inspiration for the 1998 movie “Patch Adams,” starring Robin Williams.

Clowning in hospitals is different than circus clowning, Brackett said. Instead of wearing make-up and using physical humor to entertain people, Brackett teaches the students to use more gentle techniques, such as blowing bubbles or playing with string.

Many adults fear clowns, she said, and their first instinct is to back away. When a patient or sick person has this reaction, Brackett and her students must learn how to approach the person and make them feel comfortable in other ways: through their voice, words and body language.

When they learn how to make their patient feel comfortable while being dressed as a clown, they know how to gain their patients’ trust when they are dressed as a doctor, Brackett said.

Another reason why Brackett uses clowning to teach health care is simply because it is humorous. Patients have told her in the past that they don’t feel normal anymore because of their sickness. As a clown, Brackett helps to change that feeling.

“When you laugh with someone, for that period of time, things are normal,” Brackett said. “It’s not pharmacist and patient; it’s two people laughing together. And that restoration of normalcy, even for a brief period, is healing.”

Last year — the first year for the group — Prescription for a Smile worked with sick people at local community events including benefits and cancer walks. Brackett brought in the headmaster of the Ohio College of Clowns, Robert Kreidler, to speak to the students, and also had the group take a balloon-making class.

This year, Brackett would like to do more. Because the group was so new last year, Brackett didn’t want to take the students to hospitals to visit patients. This year, Brackett said, they are ready, but because of the recent outbreak of swine flu, the Ohio State Medical Center has tightened security and Brackett can’t get permission to bring the group to the hospital.

In the meantime, Brackett has other plans for the group. She said she wants to look into visiting nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities. She also wants to spread the word about health care clowning and invite other people to start groups similar to Prescription for a Smile, and then bring the groups together for outings and conventions.

Brackett already has experience in publicizing health care clowning. She has spoken at colleges and has taught clowning seminars around the country. Brackett calls health care clowning “an agent of social change” and said she believes that the more people know about it, the more it will change their view on health care.

“Right now, we are struggling to change health care at the legislative level,” Brackett said. “I can do my part this way. This is my small revolution, and if I can teach it across the country, then I will.”

Brackett recruits for Prescription for a Smile at the College of Pharmacy orientation, where she presents information about the group. She also teaches classes and encourages her students to join.

Since the organization is new, Brackett has yet to recruit outside the pharmacy school, but she said she would welcome students of other majors as long as they have an interest in health care.

Because of the group members’ busy schedules, Prescription for a
Smile has not had a meeting yet this year and does not have a formal meeting schedule. However, Brackett is contacting last year’s members and getting the group back together.

For more information on health care clowning and Prescription for a Smile, contact Cari Brackett at brackett.2@osu.edu. 

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