Douglas farm girl made a difference one laugh at a time

Douglas -- With her bright blue hair and red nose, Mollypenny has walked the halls of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) for the last time, leaving a legacy of smiles, laughter, silly pranks and being whatever a sick child needed at the moment, even if it was just sitting quietly alongside for whatever was the next step in the journey.

“You just do the moment and you never know what the outcome will be,” Ruth Cull, who was raised a farm girl in Douglas many years ago and has been Mollypenny for the last two decades, noted. “I was just having fun. It was just play and kids love to play.”

Laughter and play have an important role in healing. As a therapeutic clown, she believes bringing moments of joy make a difference in the lives of the young patients and their families. It is about letting kids be kids and parents stop worrying to laugh for a moment.

Now, Mollypenny has blasted into Galaxy Sparkle in her spaceship, but her impact as a therapeutic clown at CHEO has been tremendous, evidenced by the outpouring of love since her departure at the end of October. As stories of what her visits meant to patients and families are recalled, Ruth has been touched by the memories and perhaps is just becoming truly aware of what Mollypenny meant to so many.

“I’ve done a lot,” she said. “I am just beginning to realize how much.”

Clowning had not been part of the plan when she was growing up on the family farm outside of Douglas which continues to be farmed by her brother, Preston Cull. She was one of 12 siblings, mostly boys and although they might have inherited a bit of the Irish gift of the gab, she did not foresee her clowning life. In fact, the young Ruth was even not known for her sense of humour and certainly had no vision of her life as a clown.

“The humour has become a family trait now, but I don’t remember it as a kid,” she said.

One thing she did learn on the farm with a big family was to be a quick thinker and this has served her well in responding to whatever she encountered as she walked the halls of CHEO dressed in her bright clown costume. She could respond to a scowl, a smile or a silence with quick wit and an ability to sense the right thing to say or do.

“I think growing up on the farm you learn different disciplines. You learn survival skills with so many siblings,” she laughed. “You just do the moment and you never know what the outcome will be.”

But before she arrived at that role as Mollypenny, bringing smiles around each corner, she had a career in nursing which she loved and prepared her well for her role as a clown in the hospital. As a young woman on the farm in the Valley, she had no idea what she wanted to do. Her mother encouraged her to train as a nurse and she never looked back.

“I got in the operating room and I liked it,” she said.

Travelling to British Columbia as a young nurse, she worked in an emergency department there but gravitated back to Eastern Ontario in the early 1970s and began working at CHEO in the operating room. The idea of a therapeutic clown was presented as a proposal for a dual role in 2001 and she began working a few days as a clown and the remainder still in the operating room. It would increase to three days as a clown later and eventually she gave up her operating room time and was Mollypenny while at CHEO. She feels her nursing experience made the transition easier because she was experienced with dealing with children and being at the hospital.

“I did not have to prove myself,” she said.

Before Mollypenny was born – she was four when she arrived at CHEO - Ruth heard about Clown Camp at the University of Wisconsin and became interested in attending, but the cost was prohibitive at the time and she hesitated to sign up.

“So, my nephew came to me with seven pennies and said, ‘could this help?’,” she recalled. “Then I started raising money and it was about $3,000 I had to raise to go.”

She likes to tell this story as an example of what great things a child can achieve with a simple belief and action. The resiliency of children has never ceased to amaze her.

Clown Camp was fun and while she found out what she excelled at, she also realized what didn’t work for her or Mollypenny.

“I knew right off the bat I did not like stilt walking, unicycling or mime, because I wasn’t allowed to talk,” she said with a laugh. “For the people who know me, they know that is not going to happen.”

First CHEO Clown

Mollypenny was the first therapeutic clown at CHEO, although there had been occasional volunteers who were clowns there before her. A children’s hospital is a place where there is so much worry, sadness and stress, but the sight of a clown can bring a smile, a laugh, a distraction, hope, companionship and fun.

“My first six months I did not know what I was doing,” she admits.

She persevered and tried to make a difference, one child at a time. A poem she wrote in that first year at the hospital speaks of the fears of parents, the hope of children, the beauty of a shared hug and the firm conviction “a child’s job is to play.” This has been central to her role at CHEO in the ensuing years.

“Imagine if the whole world played,” Ruth mused. “Would it not be a better place?”

She recalls the stories of the children, the laughter, the games and the pranks. It truly was all about the children for Mollypenny and her focus was on them.

One child wanted to send their cancer to outer space, she recalled. The planning took days. How would they do it? What if the aliens don’t like it?

“We decided they would spit it out so we sent it by balloon,” she said. “We watched it go off.”

And the young cancer patient? He is in Nova Scotia, doing well.

Not all stories have a happy ending, just like life. It is tough dealing with children with terminal diagnoses for anyone, even an experienced operating nurse and therapeutic clown, but Mollypenny never shied away from entering a room where she was needed. Sometimes the parents were at their breaking point and very emotional when she entered.

“I don’t look at the parents. I focus on the kid,” she said. “Look at the kid. Play, play, play. Don’t focus on where the parents are going.”

More often than not, the room is smiling or laughing, and things appear brighter and lighter, at least for the moment. The children are smiling and the parents are smiling too, even if just for a bit.

“Distraction is good,” she noted. “Then the kids would always try to get me back if I pulled a prank, which was fun.”

At a hospital like CHEO there are many patients with many diverse needs and ages. Teenagers, some of whom don’t like the idea of being at a children’s hospital, were often her strongest advocates, she recalled. It was very much about letting the kid – or teen – lead the interaction and guide how they would go, she noted.

“You can be sitting with a teenager who is not saying anything and the next thing you know a little kid came around and the whole waiting room was a buzz of activity,” she said.

Brown Es

Mollypenny liked to play jokes. She was known for promising brownies to patients. Everyone was excited about the tasty treat. Then everyone had a smile when she presented the letter E cut out of brown foam.

“The kid and I would be beside ourselves laughing,” she said.

No day was the same for Mollypenny. Sometimes there were requests or follow up visits with patients, but usually she would wander the halls, bringing a smile and acting on impulse as she was led.

“One time I was in an elevator and about six teenagers got in. The last guy gets in to push the button and says, ‘I am afraid of clowns’. I said, ‘I am afraid of teenagers’,” she recalled.

Another favourite was her Winnie the Pooh stickers. She recalled asking a rather solemn doctor if she could put a sticker on their shoe.

“The kid was just bursting out laughing,” she said. “And then I said to the doctor, ‘you got poo on your shoe’.”

Then there were her “Bored Meeting” signs which she would put up, which always brought a smile to the faces of adults and kids.

It is about having a gift for the right thing to say or do at the right time. Letting the child lead the way and making the day a bit better.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “It is the human spirit. I was really blessed.”

Walking the halls, stopping to chat, responding to a prank, Mollypenny was on a mission to bring a smile to a child and encourage them to have fun. On an average day she would interact with up to 100 kids, sharing a Brown E, sitting in a waiting room, knocking on a patient’s door.

The job was busy and it was emotionally draining, but Mollypenny had a role to play and she loved doing it. It was about bringing humour to a place of worry and stress.

“I was really honoured to be working with these kids and families,” she said. “It was such a joy. Sometimes when I would go home at night and, yes, I did cry. You don’t do it there. On occasion I did.”

Chaotic Fun Friendship

Many special relationships were formed over the years with patients who had repeat visits to CHEO. When there was a Valley connection it was extra special.

Anita Jessup of Barry’s Bay has been travelling to CHEO for appointments since her son, Chadd Stoppa, was born and Mollypenny not only brightened their day but even made the visit something to look forward to instead of dread.

“Sometimes she was the only thing that helped us through that day,” she said.

From early childhood, Chadd developed a special connection with the clown. They liked to have fun, joke and play jokes.

“They created a chaotic and fun friendship,” his mom said with a laugh.

They would pull pranks and shenanigans in the hospital together and it made going to CHEO fun.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” she noted.

For a family with a long drive to Ottawa for appointments, it made the day somehow better, she said.

“Often Chadd would ask the night before if we had let Molly know we were coming and we would let her know where we would be and she would come to see us. Sometimes she would even arrange to have lunch with us,” his mom said.

The importance of the therapeutic clown program at CHEO cannot be understated, she added.

“It takes the focus off the medical stuff and provides a distraction,” she said. “It is not the same with her not there.”

Therapeutic Clown Fund

As part of her legacy, a therapeutic clown fund has been set up. Ruth is pleased to see this will play a role in continuing the program. Named the Ruth Cull Endowment Fund for CHEO’s Therapeutic Clown Program, it will ensure ongoing support and funding for the clown program. Annual interest goes directly to the program and contributions can be made at any time.

“People can donate to the clown fund to keep it going,” she noted.

The legacy she established at CHEO will continue and the fund is part of this, and this makes both Ruth and Mollypenny smile.

CHEO is in the process of hiring a new clown now, but it won’t be another Mollypenny. It will be something entirely new and a new pair of big shoes will be walking the halls. Meanwhile, Mollypenny has taken off on her spaceship, but she may learn to do some videos or posts on TikTok or Twitter to keep giving back and bringing a smile to the faces of children and parents alike.

That young girl from the Douglas farm left the Valley to pursue her career as a nurse and made the world a much better place both as a nurse and later as a clown, one smile and one laugh at a time. When she reflects on her decades sitting at “Bored Meetings” and sticking Winnie the Pooh stickers on shoes, she breaks out in a smile thinking of the children.

“I had lots of fun. I was the one that was blessed, not them,” Mollypenny shared.

If she had a piece of advice, it is pretty simple.

“Just be yourself. There is only one of YOU.”

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader