Trained as an engineer, Iskandar Syah Ismail finds his true calling in bringing cheer to sick children.

IT’S said that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. That is certainly the case for Iskandar Syah Ismail, a hospital clown or “clown doctor”, who brings cheer to sick children in hospitals.

Trained abroad as a chemical engineer, Iskandar returned to Malaysia during an economic downturn and could not find a job as an engineer.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it freed him up to look for jobs he’d actually rather do in the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector.

“I got a job doing fundraising work for a local non-profit cancer organisation,” he recalls.

“It was during that time that my interest in hospital clowning work was sparked. During my lunch breaks, I’d visit the paediatric cancer ward at a nearby hospital, and saw how dull and boring it was for the children.

“I wanted to find something to lighten up their lives. One day, a friend passed me an article on the pioneering work of clown doctors from The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit in the US. I realised this was it!”

That was 15 years ago. Today, Iskandar a.k.a. DR Bubbles can be considered a veteran clown doctor and certainly a pioneer in his field. While still active, he and his colleagues are also starting to groom young and aspiring clown doctors.

WHERE DID YOU LEARN TO BECOME A CLOWN DOCTOR?

When I first started out 15 years ago, there was no place to learn it here so I started to look for courses abroad and found a week-long course at the Clown Camp at the Wisconsin-La Crosse University.

While in the US, I got to observe clown doctors from the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit do their work at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. I was spellbound!

Since then, I’ve gone on to learn from many masters such as Avner Eisenberg, Aitor Basauri and Angela de Castro. I’ve also learnt physical comedy from Jean-Claude Cottilard, the father of the famous French actress Marion Cottilard, and have been mentored by Caroline Simonds, the founder of the Le Rire Medecin, a well-known clown doctor programme in France.

IS SUCH EXTENSIVE TRAINING NECESSARY TO BECOME A CLOWN DOCTOR?

You have to learn a lot of things to become a good clown doctor. You have to sing, play music, do physical comedy and possess improvisational skills. You must also learn how to grieve and accept the process of death of a terminally ill child. It’s not easy.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A CLOWN DOCTOR AND A CIRCUS CLOWN?

Circus clowns have to connect with a big audience, whereas clown doctors focus on one child at a time. The amount of makeup used is also different. Circus clowns use heavier makeup so that audience members in the back rows can still see them. Our makeup is lighter because we don’t want to scare the children.

Lastly, because our “stage” is a lot smaller than in a circus, we have to be very careful not to damage medical equipment and so on. I’ve learnt from Cottilard how to create a theatre performance in a one-metre square area, which is perfect for the hospital environment.


DR bubbles visiting a child in hospital.

HOW INSPIRED WERE YOU BY PATCH ADAMS?

He’s one of my inspirations, for sure. I used to dream of following his annual humanitarian clowning missions to Russia but I can’t afford it. I’ve spoken to him on the phone before and I have a personal handwritten letter from him.

IS THIS A FULL-TIME JOB FOR YOU?

It is. In addition to clowning, I do fundraising work for Red Bubbles, the NGO I co-founded to carry out our hospital clowning programme in three hospitals across the country.

There are two other clown doctors I work with in Red Bubbles. You can find out more about us via our website (www.redbubbles.org.my) or our Facebook Page (facebook.com/myredbubbles).

IS IT TRUE CLOWN DOCTORS ALWAYS WORK AS A PAIR AND NEVER ALONE?

Yes, this is true. You can’t last long in this line of work if you try to do it alone. The emotional toll is very heavy. You need your clown doctor partner to give you emotional support.

ARE THE TWO CLOWN DOCTORS IN RED BUBBLES VERY DIFFERENT FROM YOU?

Every clown character is unique. DR Lat a.k.a. Latfy, a trained architect, is my good friend. We co-founded Red Bubbles together. Our clowning dynamic is like Laurel and Hardy. The other one is DR Donno a.k.a. Normah Nordin, a well-known figure in the theatre and film industry. She attended one of our workshops and volunteered to help us. I’m lucky to have her as my clown partner and good friend. She’s especially loved by the parents who see her as a somewhat grandmotherly figure capable of comforting them during the difficult moments in the ward.

WHY ARE THERE NOT MORE CLOWN DOCTORS IN THE COUNTRY?

I guess this is still a relatively unknown profession here. In the west, being a hospital clown is considered a professional career. Le Rire Medecin in France offers a diploma-level course on hospital clowning, which is accredited by the French government. I’ve dreamt of taking this course but I’d have to learn French first!

On our part, we help to groom young people who want to take this up as their career. For example, we have a trainee from Penang named Oceans Tan, a Universiti Sains Malaysia graduate in her 20s who was inspired to become a clown doctor after seeing a few at work during a backpacking trip to New Zealand. We’ve been training her since 2015.

WHAT’S IN STORE FOR YOU THIS YEAR?

We’re currently doing some crowdfunding so we can attend the Healthcare International Clowning Meeting 2018 (www.hcim2018.com) in Vienna this April. This event will be attended by healthcare clown practitioners from 39 countries, as well as scientists who have carried out research on the effects of clowning on sick children. There’ll be workshops as well.

We want to attend this event to learn how to bring joy to sick children with autism and Down Syndrome.

The conference will also give us the chance to learn from well-established healthcare clowning organisations on how to improve our programmes.

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DR bubbles visiting a child in hospital.
Trained as an engineer, Iskandar Syah Ismail finds his true calling in bringing cheer to sick children.

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