Interview with Giggle Doctor Kris Hughes

Two days a week, talented musical mum Kris Hughes masquerades as a Giggle Doctor, entertaining babies and children in hospitals and hospices. Kris explains why her work is so important.

What’s your career background?

I’ve done a lot of things in my day, but I’ve always been a singer/songwriter and performer along the way. I worked in IT when I moved to the UK in 2000.

How did your career change once you had children?

I knew that I wanted to do something with children and music, if possible. When my daughter was three years old I came across an audition for the Theodora Children’s Charity to join their team of Giggle Doctors.

I also, simultaneously, decided to obtain an early years music degree from Roehampton University. I wanted to lead music sessions for little ones. It was either that or become a teacher.

What is a Giggle Doctor?

A Giggle Doctor is a highly skilled entertainer that works with children in hospitals and hospices to boost morale and generally bring smiles to people. To try and change the energy in the room, if only for the briefest of moments.

When and why did you decide to become one?

I knew about Theodora and I just happened to check the Stage when their audition notice was listed. I thought it would be great to combine my love of music with my new found love of little people.

What kind of training did you have?

I hoped my music and my experience of being around children would benefit me in the selection process. Once chosen, I trained for two years. It’s very intensive.

Part of the training is developing your clown character – mine is Dr Fab. I have been lucky to train with some very talented clowns from the UK and Europe. The training also covers health and safety, safeguarding children, hospital etiquette, working with dying children, awareness of your environment, etc.

What do you do when you visit hospitals?

I get into costume and character and work a specific round of wards for four hours. Generally we don’t do more than one or two visits a week, with no more than six visits a month. It’s for our protection as much as to strike a balance of visits within the team.

We visit all the children who wish to see us and that can range from babies to teenagers. We are trained to be spontaneous and work with all ages. We can spend time with siblings or families or even just the parents when the child is having surgery or a procedure.

We tend to work with another Giggle Doctor but sometimes you can work on your own. I play ukulele and use some balloons and bubbles. Improvisation and music are my main things. And being ridiculous. And being a super model.

Which hospitals do you visit?

I travel mainly to Addenbrookes and Birmingham Children’s Hospital at the moment. I have worked at Great Ormond Street and Nottingham. The team (27 of us) visit about 20 different facilities all over the UK.

How important are Giggle Doctors?

I feel they are massively important! To hear a parent say, ‘My son hasn’t smiled in three weeks. Thank you so much!’ is an incredible thing.

We don’t do it for the reward, really. It’s those moments where you know you really did bring a smile to a child’s face or lightening the mood, brighten the energy in some way.

We can work with a child who is in intensive care and be very sensitive and quiet. We can work with a whole room full of bored kids in an outpatient waiting area.

Our training and experience allows us to interact as the child needs us to, including telling us to leave. We are a clown or a ‘fool’ afterall. Our failure is funny. It’s great to be the one that isn’t going to hurt the child or ask anything of the child. They can tell us what to do. It empowers the child.

Do you ever find your job hard?

All the time. At first it’s hard to keep the work from getting in – Dr Fab is my protector. If Kris went into the hospital, she would be a puddle of tears and snot.

Dr Fab isn’t concerned with WHY the child is in hospital, she just wants to play and enjoy their company. Nina Conti, our new patron, is a wonderfully talented woman who trained with us for two years. She directed and produced a documentary about her experience. She found it very hard. But the film is an excellent bit of insight into what the work is like for us.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a Giggle Doctor?

Creating a special moment. Spending time with a child and walking away thinking, ‘wow, that was wonderful’. It happens. Even with children who have life limiting conditions, it’s so great to think that we may have given them happiness on some level and taken their mind off of their illness, even if just for a moment.

If people want to help or get involved, what can they do?

Theodora Children’s Charity operates on donations and sponsors – we wouldn’t exist without them.

Get in touch, anyone can sponsor a Giggle Doctor. Or just donate, no amount too small. Schools do things like ‘silly dress up day’ and the children all bring in a pound. It’s not very much per child, but 600 children can add up to a great donation for the charity! And it’s children supporting a charity that helps children.

I know people don’t like to think about this work because no one wants to imagine their child being in hospital. But we can all empathise can’t we? We all know someone who has been there. It’s a great charity to support. A pub quiz, a charity ball, a fun run, a nomination through your business, we just appreciate the support!

As well as being a Giggle Doctor, what else do you do?

I am a veritable cornucopia of projects! I am a singer/songwriter and perform with my husband as Cicero Buck, an acoustic Americana pop-rock duo. We’ve just released our third full length album, The Birth of Swagger. We hope to get airplay on BBC Radio 2.

I’m also an early years music leader in Bedford (The Frogs’ Chorus) and am writing two shows to perform this summer at the Bedfringe festival. I hope to take both shows on tour later in the year to villages, art centres, festivals and schools. I do musical storytelling and am also working on the next album.

How often do you work, and how do you balance work with your family?

A typical week is Monday, Giggle Doctor (it’s a FULL day), Tuesday three sessions as the Frogs’ Chorus in a local nursery and an after school choir session for 8/9 year olds, Wednesday another nursery session and a session at a special school for teens with behavioral and/or social issues, Thursday one music session and then off to do a Giggle Doctor shift, and Friday brings two music sessions.

I realised recently that my life lacked balance – I am taking a short break from Giggle Doctoring to focus on my writing projects for the summer and I’m streamlining my children sessions into one or two days to give me more time to write and compose/record.

I am also working on setting boundaries and respecting them. If it’s a fun evening with the family, then that means no sneaking to check email.

And finally, what’s your top work-life balance tip for mums?

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. Four crappy projects versus two much more interesting projects is a much better way to spend your time. And respect your boundaries. If you say you will stop work at 5pm, then stop at 5pm. If you need to switch off your phone, then do it.

Being self employed can be very tricky and suck up all your time. You have to put yourself first and not feel badly about it. Yes, your kids are very important but if mommy is having a break down – no one is happy! And don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Super mum – she doesn’t exist.

You can find out more about Giggle Doctors on the Theodora Children’s Charity website. You can also see Cicero Buck perform on 13 June in Bedford, UK.