Doing Rounds With a Clown

Kostantin Sedov, 26, graduated from the law department of Moscow's prestigious Higher School of Economics, but on an average day, Sedov goes to work wearing a big round red nose made from a sponge and a white cloth over his head. His cheeks are painted red and his eyes are framed by long black lashes.

But this young man does not perform on the circus stage. The only people who can catch his act are the patients of the oncology wards of the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital, the Morozov Children's City Clinical Hospital and the Children's Oncology Research Institute.

The only hospital-affiliated clown in Russia, Sedov appears at the door of a ward at a children's oncology center with his long, thin frame clothed in a multicolored clown suit and pants, big bright cloth boots, a white doctor's robe draped over his shoulders, and a plastic stethoscope around his neck. Out of the pocket of his robe pops out a toy plastic syringe about 15 centimeters long. Sometimes he blows soap bubbles into the room before he enters.

"Here I come," he says, smiling around at the pale faces of the kids, most of whom wear bandanas to hide their bald heads -- the result of chemotherapy sessions. Some of them are so weak they cannot even get out of bed.

Many of the kids, who range from primary school age to teenagers, can barely smile, but their eyes light up when they see the clown they call Kostik.

Kostik heads to each child, shaking hands with boys and dramatically pretending to kiss the hands of the girls, eliciting more smiles. In a few minutes, the kids are laughing and playing games.

While some doctors say that acts like Sedov's can neither contribute to a child's recovery process nor improve the mood of a physically sick child, they agree that clowns can do a lot of good helping children adapt to the realities of their disease.

"[Playing games] is a good way to adapt to this new environment, especially when children are recovering after a course of drugs," said surgeon Polad Kerimov, who has witnessed Sedov's performances

Kerimov especially praised the toy syringe and stethoscope that Kostik uses in his games, which are similar to real ones, but don't cause pain or frighten the children.

Kerimov said that Kostik's medical toys help children adapt to medical instruments, especially since many of the children have never seen such things before. "Any child who has never seen [medical instruments] in his daily life, will never be adapted to them [at once]," Kerimov said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
While doctors question the medical benefits of Sedov's act, the children he meets attest to his importance in helping them cope with the realities of their illnesses.

Even if they feel better after Kostik's visits, few kids can explain how he helps them adapt to the hospital environment. But contrary to Kerimov's opinion that their mood can't be improved, many of the kids look overwhelmed with joy even just talking about Kostik.

"Of course I like Kostik!" exclaimed 14-year-old Valya Gershkovich, a pale teenage girl wearing a hoodie. "I like him because he is cheerful and lively," she said.

Valya said she talked to Kostik "about life." "He is like a friend to me," she said.

Ten-year-old Alexandra, a slim girl with a long blonde ponytail, expressed a more mature view of Kostik's influence on the kids.

"Kostya understands that it is very hard to be here and helps us pull ourselves together," Alexandra said. "Kostya really loves kids," she added.

While a student at the Higher School of Economics, Sedov performed at a student theater, acting in dramas as well as comedies.

After graduating, Sedov worked as a lawyer for about a year and a half before realizing that he had "no calling" for it.

While still at university, he heard of an Ossetian girl who had walked over a mine and was lying in a coma at one of Moscow's hospitals. The girl needed around $70,000 for a surgery that could save her life.

"I started to send kopeks to her, I e-mailed my friends asking them to help, but they thought I was spamming them," Sedov said. "But I couldn't do anything and the girl died."

A friend of his told Sedov about a church working with the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital that accepted donations and welcome volunteers who wanted to help gravely ill children.

"I just came there and asked them what I could do to help," Sedov said. The hospital staff told Sedov they needed a clown.

"I was nervous about playing a clown for kids, since it is well known that kids are the most critical audience, but I decided to try," Sedov said.

He has been performing as a hospital clown for three years now. In the beginning, it was a part-time hobby, but after quitting his job as a lawyer, he began to clown around full-time. Sedov earns additional income by giving private performances at children's birthday parties.

Inspired by the example of Patch Adams, an American doctor and clown who preaches laughter as a healing method, Sedov dreams of opening his own school to train hospital clowns.

Specially-trained clowns, known in several countries under the trademarked name Clown Doctors, began working in hospitals in 1986 under a program called the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which was started by Michael Christensen in New York City.

Clown Doctor programs now operate in Australia, the United States, Canada, Israel as well as many countries in Europe.