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'Serious' clowns distract patients from their pain

  • Story Highlights
  • Clown group Lev Leytzan gets name from working with Jewish youth.
  • Founder says he was inspired by Dr. Patch Adams to bring joy to patients
  • Clowns who perform for patients say experience is humbling
  • Mantra of group is "serious clowning, a story behind every smile"
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By Emmanuel Tambakakis
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Oooooooshie the clown knows the instant effect he has on patients.

The Lev Leytzan clowns perform for children and patients in hospitals to spread laughter and joy.

The Lev Leytzan clowns perform for children and patients in hospitals to spread laughter and joy.

"When you walk out of a room hearing people laugh and smile, you hear them talking about it," said the clown, whose real name is Asher Mechanic.

He entertains children and patients as part of a clown troupe in New York called Compassionate Clown Alley, bringing laughter to those in hospitals.

"It's the spreading of giving from one person to another, like a chain reaction," Mechanic said.

The clown organization is also known as Lev Leytzan, a name derived from the program's roots working with Jewish youth. In Hebrew, lev means heart, and leytzan is a clown, so the translation is "The Heart of the Clown." Video Watch the clowns talk about their work. »

"Lev Leytzan allows me to take [something] scary and mundane for the patient and into something exciting beautiful and playful," said the group's founder, Dr. Neal Goldberg, a Woodmere, New York-based clinical psychologist.

For the last two and half years, the clowns have been bringing cheer to the patients at the South Nassau Communities Hospital.

"The patients get satisfaction from having some sunshine coming to them in the hospital," said Phyllis Citera, director of volunteer services at the hospital. "Sundays at the hospital are typically quiet, especially for those patients who don't have visitors stopping by. The clowns especially cheer them up."

A positive approach empowers people who are ill, said Goldberg, who works with children, teenagers and young adults.

Six years ago, while working on a bereavement project, he realized he was making a clown of himself and others in an effort to help people cope with pain. He wondered what would distract the patients from their pain and bring joy.

Inspired by the work of Dr. Patch Adams, who was portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1998 film "Patch Adams," Goldberg thought of running a similar program in which he and others could bring joy to people in orphanages, hospitals and retirement homes using the same whimsical approach.

Goldberg researched the subject before putting on a red nose and trying out therapeutic clowning for himself.

"I found it powerful in terms of my own growth and freedom of expression and creativity, and thought it would be something wonderful and powerful to bring back to the community, to teens in particular," he said.

Goldberg's clowns range from 13 to 22 years old and say they find it both empowering and humbling.

"As a clown, you get more than you give," said Dassy Newman, a former clown. "You can't hold back, you have to give it all. You have to give your heart, your soul, your energy, everything. It's the most exhausting thing you've ever done, but at the same time it's the most exhilarating."

Dr. Carolyn Fein-Levy, a pediatric oncologist at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, said Goldberg's clowns provide relief to the patients.

"Whenever the clowns are around, the children are happier," Fein-Levy said. "When they are happier, their parents enjoy watching them. They recapture their childhoods lost as a result of being sick. Clowns are a good distraction and it helps them feel normal. Nothing is more important for them than feeling normal, because their lives are not normal while going through therapy."

She also teaches an oncology class to the Lev Leytzan clowns.

"It adds another dimension to their training and gives them an overview and an understanding to know what it's like to be a kid with cancer," she said. Fein-Levy also draws from her own experience, having survived ovarian cancer as a child after a year of chemotherapy.

"I teach in the clown school but I'm not worried about patients being harmed," she said. "I'm more worried about harm for clowns because it's hard to see sick children. Some of the clowns have never really seen illness, and they can be afraid, and that's OK."

Clowning might be assumed to be all fun and games, but Goldberg takes the work very seriously.

"Some of the kids may have told you there's intense amounts of hours of training and rehearsals with doctors and clowns and debriefings," he said.

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Ultimately, Goldberg said, the goal of Lev Leytzan is to "change people's worlds, create worlds for people that need it, and to help people play."

He does it all under the mantra of "serious clowning, a story behind every smile."

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