The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship "Beyond Boulders" Blog: Medical clowning is serious business
From the moment she first leapt off a flying trapeze platform as an 8-year-old, Jacqueline Nager ['13] loved circus arts. Pretty soon, she was spending her summers at Circus Arts Camp, eventually becoming a counselor. “I had the best time there,” says Nager.
While researching for a journalism class assignment as an undergrad at Swarthmore College, Nager stumbled across the Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta, where founder Carrie Heller had merged clinical social work with her professional trapeze career. Intrigued, Nager secured a Swarthmore Foundation Grant from [the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility] to attend Heller’s Circus Arts Therapy training. There, Nager learned about the psychological, developmental, and physical benefits of circus arts, as they encourage crossing the body’s midline improving overall physical dexterity, help develop mental focus and trust, and improve self-esteem.
Nager’s experience inspired her to create a Circus Arts and Dance special major and start a campus circus club, Swat Circus, when she returned to Swarthmore. She began to identify as a “circademic” and met occupational therapists, psychologists, and doctors who were finding new clinical applications for circus arts, further validating that circus arts have real potential to help people be happy and healthy.
Still, when she enrolled at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, the odds that she’d fall in with a troupe of circademics and integrate circus arts into her studies were about as long as a floppy clown shoe.
That is, until she joined MedMeals, a program in which Keck med students are randomly assigned to attend a group dinner at a professor’s house as a way to connect with their classmates. As Nager shared her “fun fact” about herself at the dinner table, her host Dr. Lawrence Opas, the chief of pediatrics at LAC+USC Medical Center, interjected, “Circus arts? I just signed off on a Medical Clowning Program!”
After Nager told Opas more about her circus arts studies, he invited her to join the medical clowning program committee.
Now, as a Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellow, Nager is addressing the intrinsic social issues of being hospitalized—fear, anxiety, and isolation, for example—through medical clowning, which deploys play, humor, music, and circus arts. She is also training fellow Keck med students in medical clowning as a means to improve their physician-patient interaction skills and to build trust between healthcare professionals and medical clowns, establishing the program as a permanent offering at LAC+USC.
“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to be so involved in establishing Medical Clowning at LAC+USC, finding a way to give back to the patients who are providing me with my education, and sharing my love of circus arts with my fellow classmates,” said Nager. “It is all being made possible by the support, format, and networking of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.”