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Clowning around with sickness can bring joy to terminally ill

ATLANTA (BP)–Dr. Maggie Mae believes “laughter doeth good like a medicine, and it’s a whole lot cheaper.”
Her patients seem to agree that their “hug-ologist,” whose specialty is treating funny bones, can, for a brief time, help push physical discomfort away while the doctor administers her treatment.
“You just don’t realize how much it means to the terminally ill, even for 15 minutes, to take their mind off of pain,” Margie Culbertson told her fellow clowns during the National Drama Festival Nov. 14-16 at First Baptist Church, Atlanta.
Culbertson, a member of South Main Street Baptist Church, Greenwood, S.C., began clowning for the Greenwood hospice organization after discovering how much her visits had meant to one particular person.
A mutual friend told Culbertson that “Larry,” a fellow church member dying at home, might like a visit from Maggie Mae. Conversation with the man’s family confirmed he had collected some Emmett Kelly art and admired “good clowns.”
With little experience in clowning for the sick, Culbertson agreed to make a brief visit to see Larry on a day when she would be dressed as Maggie Mae. The first visit went well, and follow-up reports of Larry’s enjoyment resulted in additional visits.
Because of their shared interest in clowns, Culbertson told Larry she would bring him some videotapes of clowning she had ordered. The tapes arrived, but Culbertson procrastinated, in part because her son wanted to watch the tapes, too. Before she could deliver the tapes, Larry was dead. Culbertson’s eyes fill with tears as she recounts her poor timing.
“Don’t think you’ve got next week,” she cautioned other clowns.
Along with that difficult truth, Culbertson learned from volunteer services provided to Larry and his family about the work of hospice organizations and the wide range of practical services they offer the dying and their caregivers. Sensing God’s direction for Maggie Mae to clown for hospice patients, Culbertson decided to get involved.
A few months later, having failed to put her intentions into action, Culbertson got a call from the local hospice asking Maggie Mae to entertain at a hospice volunteers banquet.
“I felt that was a kick in the seat of the pants from God,” she recalled.
After taking the required volunteer training and health screening, Dr. Maggie Mae has administered her medicine of entertainment and encouragement for countless persons who need some literal comic relief.
Some hospice patients’ circumstances have been difficult for Culbertson to see, but Dr. Maggie Mae is better equipped emotionally than she is, she admitted.
“I’ve never cried while with the sick person,” she said, “but “I’ve cried after I leave.”
Dr. Maggie Mae tells her patients she knows they are tired of other doctors’ treatments, so she’s “fired those clowns and brought in a different one.”
Using a “stethoscope” with a large funnel dangling at the end, she evaluates the person, pronouncing them “alive, a good place to start.” Among her medical tools are a one-dimensional drawing of a cat’s face to do a quick “cat scan,” a big foam rubber hammer for persons who have difficulty sleeping, a giant thermometer with a large jar of petroleum jelly for temperature checks (which patients typically decline), a clown-sized toothbrush and a hairbrush that most people would identify as a toilet bowl brush.
She employs some slight-of-hand magic, and holds up an eye chart bearing three printed letters.
“I-Y-Q” the patient reads.
“Well, I like you, too,” Dr. Maggie Mae responds.
Depending on how the patient is feeling, the doctor may toss out some medical jokes to prompt a laugh.
“Do you know what ‘bacteria’ means? It’s the rear entrance of a cafeteria!”
The National Drama Festival, attended by more than 2,200 people involved in creative arts ministries, was sponsored by the pastor-staff leadership department of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Charles Willis