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Physiotherapists clowning around

1 July 2017

At work and at play, Sam Suke, APAM, wants to bring out the best in people—in mind and body. When he is not practising his physical craft at the clinic, the physiotherapist is playing the clown and making people laugh.

‘The role of a physio and the role of a clown are comparable—both aim to elevate people. Common parlance says laughter is the best medicine, but the medicinal qualities of laughter and play are rarely given more than a passing thought,’ Sam says. ‘The primary objective of physiotherapy is to alleviate pain and suffering while enhancing movement and wellbeing. We offer advice, exercises, manual therapy and various other techniques, but we rarely, if ever, consider the “best medicine”, which is laughter.’

Intrigued with the concept, Sam sought to explore the art of medicinal laughter from the internationally celebrated clown doctor himself, Patch Adams, made famous in the eponymous movie in 1998. So, he wrote to the doctor, now a spritely 72, to find out more.

‘Patch does not use email or social media, but he responds to every letter,’ he says. ‘True to his word, Patch responded to my letter, including a few books that he had authored.’

They exchanged letters and his intuition that humour could enhance the interventions offered in physiotherapy was becoming reality.

‘Intuitively, it makes sense. Laughter makes us feel good, and we laugh when we feel good. So why wouldn’t laughter enhance the physiotherapy interventions? Patients often present with a pain, or something that pains them, seeking a remedy, and someone to provide that remedy. The fiercely logical physiotherapists among us may doubt the scientific rigour or credibility of laughter in physiotherapy … but there is literature indicating that laughter can decrease pain, reduce muscle tone and elevate markers of psychological and social wellbeing.’

After exchanging letters with Patch, Sam joined 30 clowns from 10 countries on the 32nd Annual Clowning Tour of Russia—a far cry from his clinical work at Lifecare, Croydon, and with the Western Bulldogs.

‘Our mission was simple: to spread joy and build relationships with our fellow man. Many were first-time clowns, others were professional who had abandoned their careers in preference for humanitarian clowning. Our interventions were song, dance, ridiculous garb, balloons, ukuleles, juggling balls and plush koalas for the Australian clowns,’ he says. ‘We clowned in Red Square. We clowned in homes. We clowned on the metro. We clowned in orphanages, schools, restaurants, shopping centres and hospitals. We clowned everywhere because when you look ridiculous, people expect you to act ridiculous.’

Sam says laughter will always be integral to his career, and further clowning trips could be on the agenda, with Patch Adams tours taking place to Peru, Costa Rica, Morocco and Guatemala, as well as Russia.

‘Clowning has much to offer; for the patient and the clown. I learned stacks from the clowns and our Russian hosts. It’s about experimenting. If a trick or play elicits the desired response, such as a laugh, or a smile, the trick or play continues in various forms. If a trick or play fails to elicit the desired response, it is abandoned to make room for another trick or play that may. Clowns assess, treat and reassess just like physios.’

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