Laughter prescribed: Aoife’s Clown Doctors bringing joy to sick children

Following the death of their daughter, the Hendrick family began fundraising for clown doctors after they disappeared during the recession. Now, Aoife’s Clown Doctors are expanding outside Dublin, as they spread their dose of joy, writes Nuala Woulfe.

Aoife, her family, and the Clown Doctors.

The New Year is always a time for hopes, dreams and wishes and, for sick children and their parents, things are will become a little brighter, as 2019 sees a new children’s hospital clown service spread from Dublin to the West of Ireland and, hopefully, nationwide.

It’s all thanks to a little girl, Aoife — who passed away from leukaemia six years ago — and the labour of love of her parents, who wanted to see their “little sweetheart’s” memory live on “through the smiles” of other children.

The eldest child of Áine and Adrian Hendrick, Aoife was only five years old when she died of a seizure in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, in 2012, after several months of battling leukaemia.

Her parents say the clowns were the one thing she looked forward to during her stays in hospital, but the clowns disappeared during the recession and, despite their own loss, her parents began to fundraise to bring the entertainers back on the wards for the summer of 2014.

Since the end of 2014, the clowns have been a constant feature at Our Lady’s, Crumlin, and in the last six months Aoife’s Clown Doctors have also started a ‘clown doctor round’ once a fortnight in Temple Street Hospital, Dublin, with plans to bring the fun entertainers to Mayo and Galway at the start of this year.

The great hope is that, eventually, they can bring the entertainment service to children’s wards nationwide. The clowns have now applied for, and are awaiting, full charity status, which should help them in their aims.

Aoife’s dad, Adrian, who lives with Áine in Malahide, Dublin, explains his family were motivated to take on the task of spreading children’s laughter and bringing comfort to parents, because they’d experienced first-hand how much everyone benefited from some silly interaction.

“Poor old Aoife had to have a lumbar puncture every Monday for weeks and she would come back from theatre nauseated and lethargic,” says Adrian.

As a parent, it’s so hard, you feel your child’s joy slipping away.

"You are sitting there waiting for them to come round, but then Aoife would hear the clowns coming down the ward and her little bald head would come out from the sheets and, when they came into the room, she’d just seem to spark alive again.

"The clowns were never intrusive; they could read how you or your child were doing, just a few minutes interaction. It meant a lot.”

Áine, a trained nurse, said Aoife’s illness started with a sore elbow in May 2012, which then went into another elbow and only four weeks later, after a bone marrow biopsy, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Following a summer of ups and downs, infection and high temperatures and her organs struggling, it looked like the little girl would recover and start school on August 31.

Then, the day before, her temperature began to spike. Driving off for a routine check, with Aoife singing in the car and her school uniform in the back, her parents still hoped she would start school the next day, but later that evening she had two seizures and her heart stopped in Crumlin hospital.

It was a summer that left the family reeling. The little girl’s fifth birthday was also in August, a day she spent in hospital, with the clowns marking the event with as much fun as possible.

Áine explains how the clowns “got us through the hard times”.

I was a nurse. That meant I wasn’t as scared of the big words and the procedures that Aoife had to go through, but you’re still a parent in hospital with your sick child spending a long time in a room and, when the clowns came around, you could smile a bit yourself; the clowns allow parents to offload and vent.

"The kids always went mad for them and sometimes they might cause a little chaos, but the clowns always liaise with the nurses on the ward and the staff could always see the benefits.”

After Aoife’s passing, Adrian says their loss was so great that “it was a year or more before we felt we could even breathe again”.

Aoife Hendrick, left, and one of the Clown Doctors visiting a patient.

However, then they found out the clown service had stopped and immediately realised they had to, do something to bring them back.

“We decided to have a commemorative walk around Malahide Castle for Aoife, hoping to raise a few hundred euro to pay for just a few clown visits, but we actually raised a couple of grand and we realised we could get the clowns for a whole summer. Since 2014, thanks to the generosity of the public, the clowns are still going strong every week,” says Adrian.

Áine, who has retrained as an environmental health officer, kept in touch with the Crumlin nurses, whom, she says, “have been very supportive”.

The first commemorative walk turned into an annual sponsored event every May, when Áine, Adrian and their supporters remember the month Aoife was diagnosed.

The clowns visit Crumlin twice a week and Temple Street once a fortnight, but as Áine hails from Kilkelly, Co Mayo, she especially wanted to bring the clowns to the children in the west of Ireland.

Currently, there are two clowns trained to start in University Hospital Galway early this year. More clowns are being sourced and the plan is to then bring them to Mayo General Hospital.

Clowns tend to be entertainers or actors who are all garda vetted and are trained in how to interact sensitively on the wards.

With fun names like ‘Dr Ditzy’, on any given day clowns might sing, dance, story-tell and blow bubbles.

Faces are also kept very human and are not overly made up. The clown doctors’ movement grew out of America in the ’80s and spread worldwide and is now a vibrant movement in Ireland too.

Adrian says the clown doctors have brought him comfort, but Aoife’s loss has not made him appreciate life more, as he felt that way anyway, explaining “we were trying for years to have children, we’d no idea if we’d ever have a family and then we had Aoife”.

The couple now have three children: Roisin (9) Eoin (8) and Amy (5). “As a family we talk about Aoife all the time. She’s very much part of who we are.”

Since Aoife’s passing, Adrian also left engineering and retrained as a career guidance officer.

“I wanted to make a difference. I work in a secondary school now and love the energy of young people,” he says.

Áine says as Aoife’s story has become known through the clown doctors, it’s given her solace.

“I’m a mum of four. People used to ask me how many children I had and I’d say I’ve three at home, because you don’t always have the energy to explain. Now, everyone knows I’m Aoife’s mum. I don’t have to explain anymore.”

To find out more about Aoife’s Clown Doctors, see aoifesclowndoctors.ie, @aoifeclowndocs, or facebook.com/aoifesclowndoctorsireland/


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