Laughter is the best medicine for IWK's newest therapeutic clown

John Lang has been staying at the IWK Health Centre for over a month and is usually in pain, but the boy with cerebral palsy is always good for a boisterous laugh when the hospital's newest staff member visits.

After all, she's a clown.

Nana Margie recently started work at the Halifax hospital as a therapeutic clown, replacing Buddington the Clown following his departure late last year.

Lang, 16, is one of many patients she interacts with on a regular basis.

The non-verbal teenager from Fortune Bridge, P.E.I., has spent considerable time at the hospital, being a complex case and having undergone surgery to correct a spinal curve in 2016.

But Nana Margie never fails to brighten his day, his mother Mary Lang said.

Aly Thomson/CBC

"When John spots her coming down the hallway, he screams and he laughs and he hollers. She has that special something," said Mary Lang, a retired teacher who has been caring for John since he was a baby, and adopted him in 2012.

"She's funny, she's vibrant, she moves with her hands, she's very creative and the children love that — especially children like John who are suffering and who are in pain most of the time."

Although Nana Margie spends most of her day clowning around, she takes her new position very seriously.

She noted the children she visits don't usually get to decide what happens to them while they're at the hospital.

Aly Thomson/CBC

"That can sometimes feel daunting and maybe even a little bit scary," she said in an accent that's hard to place, but hints at origins in Cape Breton, Newfoundland and Scotland.

So when Nana Margie visits with a child, she hopes to give the children a sense of control and empowerment.

"I want for them to feel as though that moment, whatever we're choosing to do, whatever the game may be or the interaction we're having, that they're the one that has the say on how that goes," she said.

Nana Margie has a background in mental health and physical support work, theatre, circus arts and acrobatics.

Grandma Nan Island

She tells the children she's from a mysterious place next to Grand Manan Island off New Brunswick, called Grandma Nan Island.

Chantal LeBlanc, a co-ordinator with child life services at the IWK Health Centre, said Nana Margie plays a vital role at the hospital.

"Our therapeutic clown needs to have an understanding of the impact of stress and challenges that families are facing," said LeBlanc.

She said Buddington left big clown shoes to fill, but Nana Margie is well-suited for the role and was welcomed by the patients and families at the IWK.

Aly Thomson/CBC

LeBlanc said she's creative, spontaneous, energetic and funny.

"Sometimes you'll see her just dancing around in the hallways," said LeBlanc, adding that she's at the hospital from Monday to Thursday.

"It gives them a real joyful moment, and not just for the kids, but also for all the family members, to make this a little less of a scary place for them."

On the lookout for 'the gift'

Nana Margie said when she comes into the room — after knocking and receiving permission from the child to enter — she's always on the lookout for "the gift."

"You're looking for that person to honour you with that one gift," she said, her knees towering over a small table as she sits in a child-size chair in the hospital's colourful playroom.

"Maybe it's that they've brought their attention to one particular toy in the room, or maybe it's that they show you they have an interest in a particular subject — and you run with that gift."

A self-proclaimed "resident fool," Nana Margie also likes to play with objects in the room, like toilet paper or a crumpled up piece of paper.

She described John Lang as a prankster.

'We're belly laughing the whole time'

"John likes to put a hole in the floor and have other people sink in there. So every day it's a guessing game of where that hole is," said Nana Margie.

"Sometimes I've fallen into it, sometimes I've thrown things into it, sometimes I have to crawl back out of it. But either way we're belly laughing the whole time."

The clown is equipped with a beeper and is often paged to visit patients. Early in the day, she meets with staff to determine who may need a visit from her that day.

She also meets up with children in hallways, and sometimes even accompanies them to procedures.

"It is absolutely so special to watch the interaction that Nana has with some of our friends, and being able to see her spontaneously change with whatever that child wants to be able to do," said LeBlanc.

"It doesn't matter age, it doesn't matter what's going on — Nana is there to support as needed."