Students clown around at CHaD

by Elizabeth Merritt | 11/16/00 6:00am

Dr. Laffinstock has become the most highly respected new doctor to board DHMC's elite team of medical staff. Recognizable by his wild yellow hair, ridiculous glasses and black moustache, this young physician is sought after throughout the Upper Valley. In fact, Dr. Laffinstock is known for his ability to cure even the most serious patients.

His specialty is, of course, the funny bone. Dr. Laffinstock's first priority is to check the silliness levels of his patients with the "ha-ha test." He may find they even require a "laughing patch." Unfortunately, Dr. Laffinstock does have the reputation of prescribing, perhaps too freely, extra doses of the "silly pill."

Mariana Palade Syrotiak and Sara Szkola '03 are the masterminds behind the puppet, Dr. Laffinstock, who truly does patrol the halls of DHMC enforcing smiles. Syrotiak and Szkola are members of a very special program called ArtCare.

Sponsored by the C. Everett Koop Intstitute, Volunteer Services and DHMC Arts, ArtCare is a program in which Dartmouth students, local volunteers and artists dedicate their talents and services to creating a positive, energetic, enthusiastic atmosphere for patients and staff at the medical center.

The goal of the program is to put a smile on the faces of the patients through a variety of means, whether it be music by the ArtCare minstrels and troubadours, therapeutic clowning, or volunteer artists offering poetry, painting, theater and crafts to smaller groups of patients. ArtCare allows patients an outlet for self-expression as well as the opportunity for light-hearted relief from stress or pain.

Director Gail Malsin is the thread that weaves together the different ArtCare programs, sponsers, local artists and student volunteers. Organizer and liaison, Malsin has been with ArtCare since 1999, four years after its founding. She explains, "ArtCare was originally intended for medical school students as an attempt to help humanize future doctors and improve their communication skills with patients."

Enthusiasm for the program, however, quickly spread to undergrads, and each year, around 25 students become full participants in the program. Szkola , Jonathan Budzik '03 and Will Kwan '03 are volunteers pursuing careers in medicine, but that isn't a prerequisite for volunteering. "Anybody can volunteer," Malsin says, "in fact, the growing interest from the community, including volunteers like Mariana, is a template for what ArtCare can become. The community component is essential."

Syrotiak (the alter ego of Dr. Laffinstock) is the Therapeutic-Clown-in-Residence at DHMC, and travels from Brattleboro twice a month to entertain and train new clowns. The clowns-in-training team is led by Szkola and joined by Budzik, Kwan and Jill Hartigan. These dedicated community members and students have created a new verb -- "to clown" and are currently clowning on the pediatric and elderly wards of the hospital.

Kwan relates his experience of clowning for CHaD and Elderlife to the movie "Patch Adams." He desires to become the type of doctor played by Robin Williams, whose gift of therapy through humor endows patients with a new enthusiasm for life which is essential in the process of healing.

Szkola nods in agreement. "Patch Adams" is definitely a role model for these clowners; they even don big, red, foam noses as they joke and play with children and adults alike. "Clowning has made me really excited about becoming a doctor," Szkola said.

Projects like clowning in ArtCare are extremely beneficial for future doctors. These volunteers have learned that being a good doctor means making connections with their patients; they discover the value of a smile. Budzik tells a story about a young boy with whom he had played one afternoon. The little boy was just bursting with exuberance and excitement as they maneuvered the GI Joe action figures around the bars of the crib; a smile was glued on the boy's face for the entire session.

Budzik recalls, though, that when he went to leave after the 90 minutes were up, the boy, who a moment before had been the embodiment animation, suddenly became cold and silent.

"He would not look me in the eye as I said good-bye," Budzik said. "The look in his eyes of hopelessness and sadness was really disheartening. He was thinking, 'Oh no I'm going to be alone again.' I wish I could have stayed with him all day, but at least I knew we helped him for a little while. It's just so hard for these little kids."

Budzik expresses that clowning has been rewarding for him because it has taught him that he can make a difference in another person's life -- he had so deeply affected that little boy's spirit by cheering him up and being his playmate. What might seem a small sacrifice for Budzik was an infusion of energy and passion for the boy.

Katie McCarthy '00 shared her perspective. "In my experience as a Dartmouth student, sometimes it is easy to forget that there is much more to this life than academic journals, readings, research and papers. However, ArtCare was always there to spark my own soul, whether through the creation of music, painting, a collage or poetry. Through ArtCare I learned the value of imagination, and it is a valuable lesson I can take through Dartmouth and far beyond."

The next time you find yourself at DHMC, keep your eyes open. You may run into Ethan Ellis and his partner swing dancing in the rotunda, Julia Post playing her violin in the Hematology-Oncology Unit, Stonefence editor Teresa Hastings conducting poetry readings, or Sara, Will and Jonathan clowning around.

Or perhaps when you are wincing through the pain of your flu shot, Dr. Laffinstock will pay a visit, and enrich your life with a dose of silly medicine.