For 18 years, David Barashi has been a medical clown at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. He has worked in disaster-hit areas around the world, helping tsunami survivors in Thailand and earthquake victims in Haiti and Nepal. But nothing prepared him for the day he’d have to cover up his colorful clown outfit with a protective suit against the coronavirus.
Barashi, also known as Dush, is one of the founders of the Dream Doctors project, which trains and integrates professional medical clowns in Israeli hospitals. In addition to instructing medical and humanitarian clowns, he has worked at temporary hospitals in disaster zones around the world and helped boost morale of Israelis stuck in bomb shelters during the Second Lebanon War.
But even for a veteran like Barashi, the coronavirus has presented a new and daunting challenge. His alter ego Dush was among the first medical clowns in the world to enter a coronavirus ward. “You step out of a spaceship into the unknown, and you’re dressed like an astronaut, too,” Barashi says. “You don’t have one of the clown’s most dominant tools – the appearance, the special silhouette. I had to make myself stand out, by putting a diaper on over the coverall or putting stickers and other silly stuff on top of the clothes.”
While the doctors and nurses deal with the patient’s illness, the job of the clown is to boost the healthy side of the patient, explains Barashi. “For patients who are isolated because of the coronavirus, this is more important than ever,” he says.
Hila Azran, a vivacious teenager who has been coping with cancer since she was 14, has known Dush since she started her treatments two years ago. “When there were tests I didn’t want to do, the doctors would say, ‘Wait, let’s see where Dush is, let’s talk with Dush,’ because he was the only one who could convince me [to do them],” she says. “When we’re together, it’s like an explosion of energy,” she adds. “As much as we rag on each other, we’re really crazy about one another. He’s a good friend. Every treatment with him is funny. He would come and tease me and I would do the same to him – I won’t let him laugh at me without laughing at him.”
“For a 14-year-old girl who’s just really blossoming and then is suddenly diagnosed with cancer – suddenly she has no hair, her whole life changes,” says Barashi. “When I met her, I was the provocative clown – a clown that made the other person get mad and want to throw him out.” Barashi explains that this helped Azran vent some of the tension and anger over her situation. “I would touch on those things that really angered her,” he says. “I let her release all of that. I’m a punching bag. It was done with a lot of humor, black humor that was always there with us. I have to say, she is quite amazing,” he says, citing in particular her ability to laugh at herself.
Barashi emphasizes that in grappling with the situation together, he and Azran do not hide from the illness or create some imaginary reality. “We deal with the baldness, the pain, the anger, the weakness, the fatigue, the awfulness of the medications, the frustration of the treatments – we work on all of it,” he says. “In his activity, the clown turns failure into victory and disaster into joy.”
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On her 16th birthday this month, Azran came to the hospital for her daily treatment. Dush was there to mark the occasion in a way that reflects their unique, humor-filled relationship: He threw a cake in her face.