BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Five women change out of their street clothes and extract colorful outfits, wigs and hats from a suitcase. A bright yellow skirt replaces jeans, and black sneakers give way to pink shoes with a flower on the toe.
The women’s demeanors change with their outfits, as if they leave their personalities in the clothes they’ve tossed onto the bed. When they put on the wigs, the five women convert into clowns, each taking on a unique character.
But the transformation isn’t complete until they put on their clown noses. Their voices change, and they start to joke around.
“When I tranform into my character, I feel magic,” says Juliana Caballero, one of the five women. “It is an evolution. It’s something that happens as you get dressed. When I put on the clown nose, I begin to see everything very childlike.”
They open the door to the room and leave the changing room to infect children suffering from serious illnesses with happiness.
These five women are part of a nonprofit organization called Payamédicos, which aims to improve the emotional health of hospital patients in Argentina and Chile. Payamédicos, which translates to “clown doctors,” comprises mental health experts, doctors and people trained in basic medical knowledge and clown techniques.
Caballero and the other four women – Anahí Perez Bromberg, Zulema Ferré, Estefanía Garro and Malena Fradkin – are stationed at the Ronald McDonald House in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. The house has 30 rooms for families of children with serious illnesses who come from far away for treatment at the neighboring Hospital Italiano.
The clown doctors roam the hallways of the little house, jumping from one side to the other and joking with the people who cross their paths. They divide into groups and knock on the doors of the rooms, asking for each patient by name.
“Good afternoon,” Ferré says at the room of a 3-year-old girl from Colombia who recently received a liver transplant. “I am Dr. Quica Diagnóstica. I’ve come to see Estefanía.”
Estefanía’s mother, who preferred their last name not be published, plays along with the game and welcomes the clown doctors. Estefanía celebrates the arrival of Ferré and Garro, who goes by Dr. Risitos, or Dr. Giggles. They blow bubbles, and the 3-year-old can’t contain herself as she pops them in the air.
The clown doctors visit children and adults with serious illnesses in order to alleviate their sadness and assuage fear surrounding their treatments. The funny physicians say happiness and laughter have the power to heal, which parents of patients and health care workers confirm. The volunteer visitors say they also benefit from their interactions with patients.
Dr. José Pellucchi, who specializes in intensive therapy, diagnostic imaging and psychiatry, created Payamédicos in 2000 and established it as a nonprofit organization two years later. The organization now has more than 2,000 clown doctors who visit patients in hospitals throughout Argentina and Chile. This month, the Argentine members of the organization gathered for their