Tel Aviv native Nimrod Eisenberg had no intention of following in his parents’ footsteps and becoming a doctor. Although his childhood was spent mostly in hospitals—his mother is a midwife and his father a physician—he had career ambitions outside the medical field. So when he was just seventeen years old, he says, “I ran away and joined the circus.”
Not literally, but he did spend several years performing as a clown and juggler at circuses around Israel, much to his family’s consternation. And he eventually moved to Paris to study the clowning arts at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, a renown theater school. (He never wanted to be a clown in the traditional Western tradition. “In America, your clowns are either happy hobos or sad hobos.” His clowning personality, he says, is more like Charlie Chaplin.) Eisenberg soon found his way back to Israel, where he enrolled in the University of Haifa and graduated with a bachelor’s degree… in medical clowning.
“Yes, that’s a real thing,” Eisenberg laughs. “A lot of people think I’m kidding, but I’m a university accredited medical clown.”
In 2003, he joined Dream Doctors, an Israel-based organization that brings medical clowns to clinics and hospitals. It isn’t an unorthodox option that patients have to specifically request. In Israel, medical clowns are available to anybody who wants them. “We’re just another service provided by the hospital,” Eisenberg says. “We’re as integral to the medical staff as anybody.” He works alongside the doctors and nurses as a collaborative part of a patient’s treatment. “We try to be there for every procedure,” he says. “We’re there when they draw blood or change a bandage or do an x-ray.”
He has arguably the toughest job in medicine. Making somebody laugh while they’re stuck in the unhappiest place on earth is, unsurprisingly, often an uphill battle. “A hospital can be pretty grim and depressing, even for positive people,” Eisenberg says. “But if I can change their perspective, get them to reconnect with their joy, it can do wonders.” Clowns can be so effective in stress reduction that, in some minor surgeries, Eisenberg says, “a clown replaces general anesthesia.”
It’s a healing philosophy that’s also at the core of a new experimental treatment being pioneered by Eisenberg and Dream Doctors: Clown-assisted in vitro fertilization. “I only visit the patient after the in vitro procedure,” Eisenberg clarifies. The theory is, much like laughter contributes to the healing of sick people by reducing their stress, a little levity could have the same effect on fertility patients. There’s even research to back it up. In a study conducted by Dr. Shevach Friedler of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Centre in Israel, 219 women undergoing IVF were visited by clowns for 15 minutes after embryo implantation. 36 percent of them became pregnant.
“There’s a lot of unspoken tension and stress in a fertility ward,” Eisenberg says. “Once you start playing with that tension and acknowledging it and joking over it, it’s able to burst out and offer some relief.” One of his more successful bits with fertility patients involves a tea kettle with a red nose covering the spout. “I hold it like it’s a baby that’s crying,” he explains. “It’s my clown baby. I apologize for it, and I try rocking it to sleep and singing it songs, anything to make it stop crying.” Perhaps not a comedy routine that would amuse most audiences, but for a patient just coming out of IVF surgery, it addresses the elephant in the room. A tea kettle baby is the manifestation of all their hopes and anxieties.
“It’s a delicate balance,” he says. “You have to play on their fears without mocking them. You take those things that sit in the stomach and bring them to the surface so we can look at them and laugh about them.”
Fertility clowns have become more commonplace in Israel, but the rest of the world is still reluctant. Earlier this month, Eisenberg and fellow Dream Doctors clown Jérôme Arous toured hospitals in Canada, giving conferences and hosting workshops for fertility patients and curious doctors in Quebec City, Montreal, Chicoutimi and Halifax. They were met, Eisenberg remembers, with cautious enthusiasm. “I am not convinced,” Dr. Hananel Holzer of Montreal’s McGill Reproductive Centre told a local radio station about fertility clowns. “Not yet.”
Eisenberg is confident that the global medical community will catch on eventually. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that even his own family didn’t take him seriously. He was the black sheep who went into clowning instead of medicine. But he ended up in the family business anyway. He even spent a few years in residence at Hadassah Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, where he worked alongside his brother, an orthopedist.
“It was pretty easy to tell us apart,” Eisenberg says. “One of us dressed strange and talked funny, and the other was a medical clown.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)