Dr. Sarah Dippity

In the hospital work, we are confronted with the possibility of death or death itself on a daily basis. Sometimes, we hear about a child who has died. The news can often come with little or no warning. A child life specialist may walk in and mention a loss – they know that we have worked with this child, and that we would want to know about it. Or, we may be working in ICU when a child has passed away. This is always a very delicate moment because I rarely feel this is a time for a clown to appear. I sometimes wish I could disappear in these moments. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and surprisingly often, there is a family member or sibling who is seeking a diversion. Believe me, that is a time when I work to be present as a human and open vessel – not a funny clown. I also tend to look for an exit as soon as I can. It happens rarely, but it does happen. Also, when a child has passed, the staff will often need a laugh or a release of the stress they are going through. It is definitely a part of our job.

However, none of us were prepared for the day we lost one of our clown partners. It could be a little too fresh for me to write about it, but I will make an effort. I think I have to back up to the beginning of this story to really tell the tale. A little over a year ago, we had an audition for an open position on our team. We had 25 people come to the audition, but the strongest person there was a 24 year old girl named Sarah Hale. She was a recent college graduate with a degree in theater and an impetuous spirit. She was beautiful and adorable and a little bit crazy (in a good way). The team agreed that she was the best fit and the strongest candidate at the callback. And so, we began to work with her.

I’ve said this a million times when teaching clowns, but it is my strong belief that before you can be an effective clown in the hospital, you have to become a good clown in general. That means that you have to work hard to learn all you can about clowning, while also developing a strong clown character. This character is almost always an extension or intensification of who you are as a person. So, in Sarah’s case, the clown character was beautiful, adorable and a little bit crazy. During Sarah’s first six months, the team as a whole had their hands full trying to take Sarah’s natural ability and give her a crash course in clowning and in working in the hospital environment. The good far outweighed the bad, but it was still a challenge for everyone. It was a big challenge for Sarah as well, but she took it on 100%. She had such an infectious personality, so much that even one of our doctors got in on the action by tutoring her on the harmonica. He would see us coming, and take time out of his very busy schedule to check her progress and give her a new song to work on.

As Sarah neared her one year anniversary with us, several clowns on our team expressed that she had begun to turn the corner in the hospital work. Her commitment and training were helping her transcend her impetuousness to become a really solid clown. This is a great feeling to see someone begin to understand the art form of clowning. The whole team felt some ownership in helping her develop and grow, and that is a great feeling.

I suppose that has a lot to do with the intensity of our devastation when I received a phone call last summer from Sarah’s roommate. She was hysterical when she let me know that Sarah had been killed in a motorcycle accident the night before. At that moment, the world began to move at slow motion under water, and that pace lingered with all of us for a very long time. It was a tragic accident, and one that we have all replayed in our heads looking for a different outcome. Of course, everyone experiences tragedy, and the pediatric hospital environment certainly has more than their share, but our clowns have never felt a more powerful outpouring of love as we have from the staff at the hospital. It has been off the charts. We overheard the sentiment from the staff that they felt that so often, we were the people who could help heal the pain they felt through laughter, so they felt compelled to find ways to help us heal in similar fashion. I can’t begin to express how much this tragedy bonded us together with the rest of the medical team at our hospital. What a feeling to realize how powerful humanity can be.

Of course, we have had to move on, as we all do after experiencing death, but Sarah will always be in our hearts and on our minds. In retrospect, so many factors support the theory that Sarah represented some touch of divinity – and her Clown Doctor name – Dr. Sarah Dippity – sort of says it all. She blew in and out of our world in a swirling vortex, and left behind a path of love and a greater understanding of the fragile nature of life. We carry on, a little more vulnerable than before, but still looking for levity and a moment of laughter, for ourselves and for those around us. I love being a clown.

Maggie KennedyOutreach