Spreading smiles: Meet the Clown Doctors

22 May 2024

Laughter really is the best medicine, as Lou Pollard (aka Dr Quack) can attest. She brings the giggles to some of Australia’s sickest children.

Lou Pollard was at the zoo when a woman she didn’t recognise approached her. The woman’s teenage son stood beside his mother, looking embarrassed, as she explained who she was. “This strapping teenager had been a tiny kid with cancer when I last saw him,” recalls Lou. 

“His mum spotted me years later and said, ‘We will never forget you. You were a ray of light at a very difficult time.’”

For the past 18 years, Lou has been visiting sick children in hospitals as her alter ego, Dr Quack. She puts on her “suit”: bright pyjamas, a white doctor’s coat, a red nose, and clothes pegs in her hair, as part of The Humour Foundation’s Clown Doctors program, which CommBank has proudly supported for 25 years. “I’m invited into people’s lives when they may have received the worst news and I create moments of joy. That’s a privilege.”

Comedian Jimmy Rees, who is also known for his role as Giggle in popular children’s program Giggle and Hoot, agrees on the impact of humour and laughter on children’s wellbeing. “Clown Doctors are an incredible organisation, incredible people. Clowns going around to sick kids making them happy. What more can you ask for?”  

“If kids are laughing, everyone's laughing, you know, that's the sweetest thing as a parent as well, to see your kids smiling. 

The work of Clown Doctors has impacted many Australian families including that of Jimmy, who saw firsthand the positive influence of humour and laughter when his nephew, Rye, spent time in the hospital. “My nephew was in the hospital for many years, and I know how important laughter is to getting people through tough times.”

Reflecting on his experiences on the show, he shares, “I often find that parents would do anything for their kids, especially if it involves joy and laughter. So, it's incredible what these Clown Doctors do every single day. They're out there just making people laugh.”

Jimmy was inducted as an honorary Clown Doctor in April after a visit to Monash Children’s Hospital to mark 25 years of CommBank’s support of the program, which the newly named Doctor Smiles described as an “absolute honour”.

The program operates in 21 hospitals across Australia and Lou works between the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Royal North Shore Hospital and the Bear Cottage palliative care facility in Manly. One day, she may be in a mental health ward with teenagers, the next, she’ll be distracting a toddler in emergency as nurses put in a cannula. “Dr Quack loves singing and banter and she’s very good at trying to be intellectual and pompous but putting her foot in it – she doesn’t have a clue.”

One Christmas Eve, Lou met a family whose son had fallen and badly injured himself. “He was in pain, and I distracted him with toilet paper bandages,” says Lou. 

“I bandaged Dad’s head and then Mum’s leg. I got mixed up and there was toilet paper everywhere. Then the real doctors came in and – because they work with us – I got ‘told off’. Kids love when that happens.”

“These people are going through some of the hardest things to ever go through in their life,” adds Rees, “They need a bit of laughter. And that's what the Clown Doctors do day in, day out. So, they're amazing.”

A trained method actor, Lou’s passion is to make people laugh. When she met the late Dr Peter Spitzer – a doctor who recognised the healing power of laughter – Lou knew she had found her calling. Dr Spitzer co-founded The Humour Foundation and the Clown Doctors program. Lou says she’s glad to be part of an organisation that helps families smile and she loves going to work in her distinctive uniform – even if it attracts some inquiring looks. “When my last child was leaving primary school, we had an end- of-year event and a dad told me he used to tell his kids to stop staring because he assumed I’d been in such a rush in the mornings that I’d forgotten to get dressed!”

It’s not all about the kids. Lou also loves making staff smile. “I see doctors and nurses walking away from surgery and I dance down the corridor with them and sing. That silliness is a five-minute breather from the heaviness of what they’ve just been through in saving a child.”

Visit humourfoundation.org.au for more information about Clown Doctors or visit CommBank staff foundation page

Things you should know

An earlier version of this article was published in Brighter magazine

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