When people are sick, sometimes human beings feel the need to attempt to relate to them in some way. This may be due to empathy or to the fact that we naturally seek to contribute to a conversation about illness in some way. The healthy people tend to end up talking about themselves and their experiences and the sick person doesn’t get to express how they currently feel.
Unfortunately, two things can happen in this situation: 1. the healthy person’s stories may not be comparable and therefore not helpful to the one presently suffering 2. when attempting to encourage the patient, healthy people can end up indirectly devaluing the patient’s feelings or level of discomfort. Most patients are not in control of their progress and sometimes they just want to be heard.
Children's hospital clowning is all about empowering the patient. It’s difficult enough to be a child-a human being trying to understand the world but having very little power [if any] to navigate through it without proper guidance. Add to that the natural powerlessness of being at the mercy of bad health and all kinds of painful or uncomfortable tests and procedures, and the children in a hospital [like any patient] can be frustrated, angry or even depressed.
That said, sometimes a patient doesn’t want a performance-they want to talk. They want to vent their feelings with someone who is neither family nor medical personnel. If so, give them an ear, but proceed with caution. This is not the time to take over the conversation with your experiences unless they request it. An empathic answer is what they may be looking for if they are not just looking to have a listener. Some examples: “Wow, that sounds tough, but you seem pretty tough too.” “I’m sorry it’s been hard; good thing your mom is here with you.” “I think you’re handling all this better than I would have at your age.”
One afternoon there was a teen boy with a heart problem who told me and my shift partner that he was going to be discharged that evening. We celebrated it, but he said he was depressed that he would no longer be able to be on the swim team. We asked if he had any hobbies that didn't involve swimming and he said he loved playing guitar. After that, the conversation turned more positive when he realized that he could do many things with music in the future.
Meet your patients where they are; follow their lead so you can figure out what they need from you. Relate to them when and if you can, but keep the dialogue flowing in a direction that will ultimately be helpful to them.
Lucy E. Nunez has been a theatrical performer since 2002. She created Nurse Lulu for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in 2014. She was a resident clown there and at Baptist Children's Hospital. For more information please visit: www.sunnybearbuds.wix.com/buds