POOR Dr Sprout is lying on the floor, writhing in agony. Legs and arms waving like windmills, she’s howling and the more she yelps, the more Ellie and Jack laugh.
Bang! And Dr Sprightly ‘accidentally’ – and very noisily – drops a case of musical instruments on her unfortunate colleague. Crash! A tambourine lands right beside her head. Thump! Dr Sprout falls over again, squeals loudly, holds her head in agony and begs for mercy.
Ellie Greenhill, seven, and her brother Jack, 12, are mesmerised. Their wheelchairs rock as they become increasingly excited, Ellie’s so absorbed by silly Dr Sprout that she’s calling out too, making little noises that aren’t quite words, not quite laughs.
Jack might be a bit less animated but he’s carefully watching everything around him, as two very unlikely ‘doctors’ in comical red noses, brightly coloured outfits and with a slapstick routine that involves much falling over, whizz him and Ellie into an imaginary world of their very own.
It’s a fun-time session at a respite care centre that has a deeply poignant meaning: for it’s a reminder that however terribly handicapped children are, above all, still just children.
Mum Lynne watches and can’t help but smile too, because like any mother, all she wants is to see her children, however challenging their world may be, happy.
For Clowndoctors Sprout and Sprightly – performers Lies Van Zwet and Fiona Ferrier respectively – spreading laughs where some might struggle to find much to smile about is part of a sometimes moving, always slapstick day’s work.
Just as real doctors heal, treat and tend to the physical ailments of broken children, their aim is to cure sad faces and heal smiles.
Together they are part of an Edinburgh-based team which brings entertainment to some of the area’s most fragile children – some severely handicapped, others in the grip of terrifying illnesses.
“This is a form of therapy rather than simply entertainment,“ stresses Pip Quinn of Hearts & Minds, the New Town-based arts-in-health organisation that takes Clowndoctors to 17 venues across Scotland, bringing fun to 10,000 children.
And the Clowndoctors’ job of making children laugh is partly possible thanks to people around the land who tomorrow will wear onesies to work, sit in bath tubs full of cold baked beans, eat Pudsey shaped biscuits and put spare cash into buckets.
For while BBC Children in Need usually means smiles for television viewers who tune in to watch, for children like Ellie and Jack, the laughs come much later when Dr Sprout and Dr Sprightly crash, bang and wallop their way into Calareidh, a respite facility for disabled children such as them in Bingham Drive.
“They absolutely love the Clowndoctors,” nods mum Lynne, smiling as she watches Ellie stretch excitedly towards Dr Sprout who is wriggling and spinning manically in front of her. The Clowndoctors know what they like, they ‘read’ them very well. They know Jack loves music, so they make up songs for him and juggle. And they know Ellie likes nonsense so they have a lot of fun with her. Jack and Ellie recognise them and definitely respond.”
Indeed it’s a touching scene as brother and sister – neither is able to walk, talk or eat unaided – react with sheer joy as the silly pair bash and crash around in front of them.
It’s slapstick fun but it’s also individually tailored to each child, aimed at teasing out elements of their character usually crushed beneath the weight of massive handicap or debilitating illness.
Another element of Hearts & Minds’ work is Elderflowers, Pip explains, which provides gentle light-hearted sessions for much older dementia patients.
“The Clowndoctors perform differently depending on where they are,” she adds. “It can be quiet and gentle in hospital and hospices, louder with children like Jack and Ellie who are used to them.
“With different children there’s a different reaction. For some, it helps them make decisions and helps them communicate. Some who have had surgery might be finding it difficult to walk, so the Clowndoctors make a game. They put down something pink or red and encourage little girls to pretend they are a princess with a special carpet to walk on. Then they stand on either side pretending to blow trumpets to herald her arrival.
“It’s fun but it’s for a reason.” BBC Children in Need has supported the Clowndoctors by providing £30,000 over three years. And mum Lynne, 48, of Denholm Drive, Musselburgh, says Jack and Ellie are proof of the fun it brings. “They love coming to Calareidh anyway, but the Clowndoctors are a highlight.”
Both, she explains, have Pontocerebellar Hypoplasia, an incurable and rare genetic blip that is highly unlikely to strike a family once, never mind twice.
“It was devastating,” adds Lynne, recalling the point she and husband John, 51, realised Ellie had the same condition.
“There are times when you are down about it, you want to be normal. But other parents can have issues with their children too that we don’t know about.”
The children can’t do anything for themselves, she adds.
“They can ‘vocalise’, Jack can say things that people who know him can understand. They communicate a lot with facial expression and verbal noises.
“Everyone that knows them knows when they are happy or sad.”
It sounds overwhelming but Lynne insists the children bring huge joy to their family: “They are fantastic, we get so much from them, they are two very happy children. And they don’t know any different, this is their life since birth.” For Clowndoctors Sprout and Sprightly, there’s the satisfying knowledge that they are bringing massive smiles and a great deal of happiness to desperately ill and handicapped young patients.
“Ellie has attitude,” laughs Lies, who is originally from Holland.
“And Jack, you can’t fool him, he wants to do everything himself.
“I think when children are in a wheelchair all the time, we can help them feel involved, we engage with them and make their stay in hospital or in a hospice or in respite care a bit better.
“It’s about seeing past all the tubes and the equipment and seeing there’s still a child in there who wants to have fun.”
There are times, adds Fiona, when it can be heart-breaking to see children so seriously ill.
“We can’t change how life is for them,” she says, packing away her bag of musical instruments, ready for another session.
“But we can add to the quality of the life of these children.”
For for about the Clowndoctors work go to www.clowndoctors.org.uk
Charity provides more than £1m of vital support to deserving projects in the Lothians
CHILDREN in Need provides grants to 30 projects in Edinburgh to the value of £1,758,459.
The cash goes to helping support disadvantaged children and young people, some caught in a poverty trap, others affected by disabilities or who have experienced abuse or neglect.
While the children often benefit directly, some people – such as Millie Baxter – who is mum of two autistic boys, are given a vital lifeline by the help provided by projects aided by the charity.
Her sons Josh, seven, and eight-year-old Daniel, right, were both diagnosed as having autism spectrum conditions on the same day, news which plunged Millie and husband David, of Wester Hailes, into shock and relief. “Nobody wants to hear that their child is not perfect, but at last we had a reason for Josh and Daniel being different,” she recalls. “In a strange way, it was a relief to have a diagnosis and we were able to seek the appropriate help.”
Josh was three and Daniel aged four at the time. Since then the family has received help from the Lothian Autistic Society (LAS), which receives support from BBC Children in Need to help run its vital services, including summer and Easter playschemes and clubs aimed at helping children develop social skills and have fun.
A parent support network, aimed at spreading support and information among families, is being developed, and for siblings, there are regular fun groups to give them special time to themselves. The Society helps more than 500 families throughout Lothian, sometimes providing one-to-one respite care to give tired parents a break.
“The social clubs are about taking the children out and getting them to make decisions and just be together – social interaction is very difficult for children with autism,” explains Ann Brown, chief executive of LAS, whose son Andrew, 27, is autistic. “And it helps families too – I remember I’d drop him off and just sit in the car for two hours, it was such a welcome break from everything.” For more about Lothian Autistic Society, go to www.lothianautistic.org.