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Women at Work: Heidi Silberman

Laura Peppas
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Heidi Silberman as Dr Peek-a-boo with Artistic Director David Symons and Milli Cooper, aka Dr Knock Knock. Photo: The Humour Foundation

Christmas can be a tough time of year for kids and their families to spend in hospital.

But with a red nose and lab coat filled with goodies, clown doctors like Heidi Silberman can help make lives a little bit easier.

Once a week, Heidi – aka Dr Peek-a-boo – will visit Canberra’s Centenary Hospital for Women and Children with her two co-workers (Dr Knock Knock and Dr Snooze) to give children a much-needed laugh.

“We’ll visit individual patient rooms with tricks in our pockets, bubbles and musical instruments that make noises. I have a squeaky rubber chicken and a pig that makes noises which tend to be the favourites with the kids I visit,” says Heidi.

“I find it will instantly lift the mood in the room – not just for the children but for the parents and hospital staff too.”

The Humour Foundation first launched its Clown Doctors program in Tasmania shortly after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Today, more than 60 professional performers are employed by the charity to visit 22 hospitals throughout Australia, with the program introduced to the Canberra hospital in September this year.

According to the foundation, international research has found laughter to have both physiological and psychological benefits to health and wellbeing.

“By parodying the hospital routine through humour and play, we can help children feel less traumatised by medical procedures, and they can forget their illness for a moment,” says Heidi.

“We’ll also be used as a distraction in areas such as the burns clinic. When a child has a severe burn they often have to come in weekly to get washed, dried and redressed, which can take up to 45 minutes, and that’s a long time for a child. All these kind of procedures can be pretty scary whether you’re three or 13 so to have us there being silly and blowing bubbles can take their mind off it and can also help the parents relax.”

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Dr Peek-a-boo and Dr Knock Knock in action. Photo: The Humour Foundation

A mother of four children herself, Heidi understands the turbulent emotions parents can go through while their child is in hospital.

“My son was in hospital for two and a half weeks with an infection when he was two years old so just to recognise that I know what they’re going through helps,” she says.

“I just feel like I have a special connection with the parents because I’ve been the parent in the room, I’ve had kids with allergies, asthma and broken arms.”

Outside of her work at the hospital, Heidi is a drama teacher and performs and directs improvised theatre.

She says she applied for the role of ‘Dr Peek-a-boo’ because she saw it as an opportunity to use her improvisation skills to help others.

“It was actually a very rigorous process; I had an audition in Canberra and an audition in Melbourne, before they picked the three of us,” she says.

“What I love most about doing this is knowing when we leave a room we’ve made a difference to the people in that room. I’ll walk in and see a scared mother, a tired father and a grumpy child with nurses running in and out. We go in and have fun, we’re relaxed, and by the time we leave there’s smiles and laughter.”

Currently the foundation does not receive hospital or government funding, relying solely on donations from individuals or businesses.

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Dr Knock Knock and Dr Peek-a-boo (Heidi). Photo: The Humour Foundation

Heidi says extra funding could allow the clown doctor team to visit children at the hospital more often.

“I think it would help to have us visit more than once a week because the kids do look forward to our visits and waiting 6 days is a long time for a child,” she says.

Of all the laughter Heidi has brought to the hospital, one experience stands out in her mind.

“A little while ago, we were about to enter one of the rooms when the nurses basically warned us against it and said ‘oh I wouldn’t go there, the family aren’t very happy, but you can give it a go if you like.’ Dr Snooze and I looked at each other and thought ‘there’s nothing like a challenge.’ We went into this room and there was a 2 year old boy and his whole family who all looked very worried,” Heidi says.

“I started playing the Ukelele, Dr Snooze was blowing bubbles, and really that’s all we did. After 15 minutes, there’s smiles, there’s laughter. The family didn’t speak English so we didn’t actually speak to them, but the mood in the room just changed. We left and the nurses all looked at us and said ‘how did you do that?’ It was a big change for everyone there, the nurses were less stressed because the family was less stressed…and it was all because of bubbles and a ukulele.”

You can donate to the Humour Foundation by clicking here.

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Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author

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