Tilly Tilly and Wrinkles have come down with a serious case of clown fever.
Luckily they are volunteers at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
With a big red nose, miniature green hat, shredded overalls and a flower bouquet for a boutonniere on his patched-up blazer, Tilly Tilly spends two to five hours putting smiles on the faces of patients each Sunday.
“I just cheer them up. I don’t do balloons or juggle or anything like that,” said Lloyd Wongstedt, better known to patients and staff as Tilly Tilly.
“That’s my whole purpose, to make their day a little better. I really believe laughter is the best medicine.”
He’s been regularly joking with patients of all ages for more than six years. He saw the need for some light-hearted hospital fun years ago when his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was a patient in Saskatchewan.
“I noticed there was no entertainment or anything for the children. I vowed to myself if I ever had the time and opportunity to fill that gap, I would. So here I am,” said Wongstedt, of Red Deer.
The retired farmer said cheering up patients makes him happy, too. He’s also responsible for a few grins on the road when he gets into his clown costume at home and drives to the hospital.
“Cops tend to look at you sideways.”
When Wongstedt returns home, he’s also learned to take care when changing back into his “civvies.”
“I always do a double take in the mirror before I leave the house,” Wongstedt said with his huge, painted smile.
Nancy Verdin, aka Wrinkles, has been clowning around at the Red Deer hospital on and off since 2003.
Verdin said her colourful costume sometimes allows her to reach patients in a way that others can’t.
She recalled a distressed patient waiting for dialysis.
“He was angry. He was feeling really low. The fun totally changed him. It was the clown that got me in the door,” said Verdin, with bright green hair, cheeks dusted with sparkles, a red nose and her finger puppet Bubbles the fish.
Verdin, 54, of Red Deer, likes to focus on adult patients to give them a break from the stress of illness or injury.
“Kids don’t automatically accept you. Just because you’re a clown we assume that they do. Lots of them don’t.”
Another memorable hospital visit was with a family spending time with their dying father.
“We never said a word. We offered smiley-face stickers. And we got a hug from everybody in the room and a quiet thank you.”
For some people, it’s just enough to remind them that there’s life and laughter outside those four walls, she said.
“When I go into a room, if you’re in a low, quiet spot, that’s where I am. It doesn’t mean I’m not smiling. It doesn’t mean that I’m not bright and cheerful. I’m not going to be bouncing off the walls and try to wind you up. I’m going to meet you where you are.”
A hospital clown is a lot different than other clowns, Verdin said.
“I’m not there for the applause or thank you. I’m there hopefully to make a bit of a difference in somebody’s life in one of the simplest ways ever. It’s just about showing up.”
Red Deer hospital has six volunteer clowns, three of whom are new and just completed training in September.
Elsewhere in Central Alberta, there are two hospital clowns at Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre.