• Don’t let the wigs and red noses fool you – some medical professionals are very serious about the beneficial effect of laughter on children’s health
Song Longchao became a clown doctor at Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital in Chengdu four years ago. Photo: Song Longchao.

Wearing a round, red plastic nose, a colourful suit, and sometimes an outrageous wig, Song Longchao is affectionately referred to as "clown brother" by his young patients.

As a nurse at the children's surgery department of Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital in Chengdu, Song, 29, has spent much of his spare time in the past four years playing the fool in the hope of bringing joy and laughter to everyone on the wards.

Clown doctors appeared in the United States about four decades ago, and the idea spread to other Western countries. The phenomenon became the subject of the 1998 Hollywood film Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.

But China, its is a new phenomenon, and few people know of the practice, which is based on the theory that humour can complement medical treatment.

Song said he discovered clowning in 2015, when senior doctor colleagues returned with the idea after studying in overseas hospitals and asked staff if they were interested in it.

Song Longchao and other clown doctor volunteers prepare for Children's Day at Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital. Photo: Song Longchao.

"I said I would try because I love doing volunteer work, and clown doctoring seems able to help patients," he said.

Four years later, the hospital has a 100-strong clown team " all volunteers and all doctors or nurses.

"After these years performing as a clown, I found it makes people happy and it makes me happy, too," said Song. "It's truly meaningful."

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He said that as a clown, he uses props, music, magic, and straight-up comedy to communicate with patients, who all have different needs.

"Sometimes I have to improvise in my act … I learned gradually," Song said.

Each year, the hospital invites experienced medical clowns from Israel and Italy to train its volunteers, and Song said he learned to improve his communication and performance skills with them.

His most memorable patient was a five-year-old boy who needed an urgent operation, but the child refused to cooperate with staff and started crying.

Song Longchao says he refuses to be put off clowning by public or professional sceptics. Photo: Song Longchao.

Song discovered that the boy was fascinated by space travel, so the clowns dressed as astronauts and told their young patient they would take him to play in "space" if he cooperated with his doctors.

"The kid's world is pure. He believes in our story and he is cooperative throughout the whole surgery process," said Song. "After the operation, he delightedly talked about his magic experience in space, and the look on his face touched everybody."

In another case, the volunteers helped a young girl who was afraid of injections to take her shots and complete her treatment.

For Song, the clowns' gentle and comic persuasion is like a victory. "We are often encouraged by this kind of small achievement," he said.

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Song believes medical clowning is a form of alternative medicine, which is aimed at helping patients to be happy, relaxed and to cope better with physical pain.

"The clown is just an image, and it is probably not popular among some Chinese people," Song said. "Instead, characters from traditional Chinese tales such as the Monkey King, or from popular modern cartoon series like Pleasant Goat, would be more accepted in China. We are not restricted in one single image or one single communication way."

Song said that some colleagues had quit the volunteer team because of public scepticism about clown doctors, and a lack of support from some fellow medical professionals had put others off.

Actor Robin Williams plays an unconventional doctor in the 1998 Hollywood film Patch Adams. Photo: Alamy

"I was once under serious pressure and thought of giving up," he said. "I felt I was like a real clown " wearing the weird red nose, standing alone on the stage, and did not know where I should go."

But Song said he discovered the value of being a clown doctor in his patients' "warm smiles".

"I am firmly determined to carry this on. Even if I can make only one patient happy and let merely one patient feel less pain, what I am doing is still worthwhile," he said. "This is my mission."

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