Tia wasn’t even a teenager when she was diagnosed with an Osteosarcoma. A tumour which is usually found in the arms or legs, but in Tia’s case metastasized on her hip bone. What started as an innocuous pain in her hip was initially dismissed as growing pains. Cancer was the furthest thing from her mind.
When the pain refused to fade and swelling started, Tia and her mum went straight to St John’s Urgent Care in Cockburn WA. They were immediately referred to Perth Children’s Hospital, where a whirlwind of scans, blood tests and medical examinations lead to only one diagnosis. Tia had cancer.
Seven months of gruelling chemotherapy, surgery and physiotherapy followed. “Initially it wasn’t so bad,” said Tia, now a 14-year-old veteran who has experienced far more than any parent would wish for their child. “But when the chemo started, the tumour grew. I’m not sure why, but apparently that’s quite common.”
“As it grew it became more painful, which meant it was harder to sleep and cope with. As soon as chemo started, I was so nauseous, I couldn’t even go to school – which meant I wasn’t seeing my friends. I had to stop the sport I enjoyed, and all my efforts were focused on fighting to get better.”
The doctors at Perth Children’s Hospital quickly realised that chemo alone was not going to be the solution, and scheduled Tia for surgery. As it turned out, Tia’s surgery was one of the biggest of its kind performed at Perth Children’s Hospital. The surgeons told Tia that afterward she would have great difficulty in walking.
The chemo was successful in reducing Tia’s tumour by 30% and the following surgery removed the rest of the tumour – taking part of her right pelvis in the process. As with any surgery, there is risk, and Tia unfortunately lost her L5 nerve and a significant proportion of her muscle, which helps control leg movement.
“As everyone would know,” said Tia, “being in hospital is hard. Being in hospital for the length of time I had to, is horrible. However, seeing the Clown Doctors always made me laugh and smile.”
It was a relief to break the monotony of being in hospital. “Even if you’re not in the mood to laugh, they are wonderful, caring people who are there to have a conversation and remove the ‘hospital-ness’ of the experience.”
Tia’s mum, Keiko said, “The whole experience, as a parent, was really scary. We hadn’t had to deal with anything like this before and it’s really hard to see your child in pain. The Clown Doctors were able to make the whole family happy and help normalise things. They’re great at improvising and really clever at what they do.”
“Sometimes it wasn’t about laughing,” Keiko recalled, “it was great just to be able to have a normal conversation with someone. In the middle of a bad day, it was lovely to see Tia smiling. Thanks to the Clown Doctors and their antics, sometimes I had sore cheeks from smiling too much! Not exactly what you associate with being in hospital with your sick child.”
When children have long-term stays in hospital, they build genuine relationships through the Clown Doctors frequent visits, sometimes spanning years depending on routine surgeries and check-ups. “I have seen Dr Hat a lot,” said Tia. “She’s been with me through my whole hospital journey, either making us all laugh, or just being there to ask how I was going.” Isolated from her friends, Dr Hat’s regular visits became an important human connection for Tia.
“All the Clown Doctors do a great job. They’re hilarious but also really special people at the same time,” said Tia. Far from just ‘entertainment’, Clown Doctors are specially trained performers who work closely with hospital staff to alleviate patient’s stress in emergency settings and distract during painful procedures. Each visit is individually focused to help bring back wonder and play to children isolated in hospital.
“For anyone who thinks the Clown Doctors are just for little kids, I would say that they are completely wrong. Clown Doctors have been with me every step of the way on my hospital journey, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” said Tia. Drawing on international research, The Humour Foundation developed the Clown Doctors program using the proven benefits of humour therapy, turning what is often a traumatic experience into something positive, while also supporting staff to perform their treatments effectively.
“Clown Doctors are especially important for kids who don’t understand why they’re in hospital,” said Tia. “It can be really frustrating. They help you forget you’re in hospital and bring a different side to your hospital experience. Laughter really is the best medicine. They might not be helping from a medical perspective, but they bring a positive perspective to your hospital stay.”
To thank the Clown Doctors for their support while she was in hospital, Tia did a painting for them. “I thought that it would be nice to give something back,” said Tia. “The Clown Doctors were a big part of my time in hospital, and I wanted to do something to say thank you. Not only did they like it, but my painting is now hanging in the ‘Clown Central’ office!”
Tia is now having physio sessions three times per week and, despite initial concerns, is walking with the aid of a walker. Also, through sheer determination, she is now able to lift her leg! We are incredibly proud of Tia and grateful that we have been able to bring joy to herself and her family during this challenging time.
At time of writing, Tia is heading back into surgery, however Dr Hat and the rest of the Clown Doctors are looking forward to helping her laugh again.
Your support will make a massive impact in helping children and teenagers, like Tia, as they go through some of the biggest challenges in their life. For every $1 invested into the Clown Doctors program $9.90 of social and economic value is created. Give the gift of laughter today.