Jennifer Polk anticipated a wave of emotions on her first day of breast cancer treatment, but never thought she’d have an urge to laugh – until a woman in polka-dotted pants and a whimsical headband approached her infusion chair.
A smile crossed Polk’s face, and broadened as her visitor broke into a serenade of “You Are My Sunshine” on kazoo. “On a very serious day, this brought a little light,” says Polk. “For a moment I forgot why I was here. Who wouldn’t want to see a clown?”
The clown in question is Dr. Apple-A-Day, aka volunteer Joan Frutkoff, who spent 13 years managing Dana-Farber’s English as a Second Language Program, all the while conducting twice-monthly rounds with the HumorUs Healers, a volunteer clown troupe formed in 2002.
Frutkoff retired last December, but she still dons her white lab coat and pink high-tops for weekly visits to the pediatric and adult clinics throughout Dana-Farber’s Longwood Medical Area campus.
“When I stopped working, I thought, ‘Great, now I can come and clown more often,’” says Frutkoff. “This is a wonderful way for me to stay connected, stay involved, and be with patients.”
Frutkoff had no prior experience with clowning before training with the first HumorUs Healers, and admits initially being skeptical.
“About two months after we started, we surveyed patients and families to see if they were enjoying it,” Frutkoff explains. “I’ll never forget how one patient, who happened to be a nurse, reacted when I asked if she liked it. She looked surprised and said, ‘Of course. I am not my disease. I am a wife, a mother, a nurse – and a cancer patient. I can still smile.’”
That’s still the way people react when Frutkoff – after checking in with clinical staff – quietly approaches them. She asks an ice-breaker question and is soon engaged in conversation about weather, traffic, hometowns, and family.
Sometimes cancer comes up. When Han-Mi Walsh-Riddle, a breast cancer survivor in her second year of remission, tells Frutkoff that she is nervous about her annual checkup, Dr. Apple-A-Day nods knowingly and says, “I know just what you mean. My sister is a five-year survivor, and she still gets nervous before each checkup.”
As Frutkoff talks, the anxiety leaves Walsh-Riddle’s face.
“Joan is very in-tune to where people are at – she’s a great talker and listener,” says Pat Stahl, MEd, manager of Volunteer Services and Programs. “One of the misconceptions is that when people come here, they just want to talk about their illness; they also want to be themselves and feel something separate from their disease.”
Through the years, more than 20 Dana-Farber clowns have visited the clinics, some them joining Frutkoff on the patient-family route of the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk each fall. She has trained fellow clowns to never touch a patient, be courteous to all staff, leave when a hospital staff member approaches the patient, and much more.
The current troupe includes Frutkoff, her longtime clown partner and Dana-Farber volunteer “Earl the Pearl” Stafford, and staffers Michael Goldberg, PhD, and Rachel Goldblatt. Stahl says the plan is to start recruiting and training new clowns this fall.
“On our first day, Joan and I came prepared with props, jokes, magic tricks, and even lists of Oscar-award-winning movies,” says Stafford. “We quickly learned that we should keep all those things in our pocket and just listen. Joan has a special gift of knowing exactly what a patient needs to hear, whether it be just a hello, a suggestion to visit the Healing Garden, or a recommendation on a great restaurant.
“She is an amazing colleague, a loyal friend, and Clown Extraordinaire.”