When Bob Mason first approached Joan Perry, director of volunteers at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, with the idea of starting a clown program, it didn't provoke much of a smile.
"I didn't jump on it," Perry said. "It's not for everyone, so I was a little skeptical, to be honest."
Mason, a retired businessman living on Seabrook Island, had proposed in 2008 to gather volunteers, dress them up as red-nosed, rosy-cheeked doctors and make the rounds through the hospital wards, visiting patients young and old, and injecting a little humor into situations that otherwise could be quite dire.
The program, Mason explained, would be a local branch of Bumper "T" Caring Clowns Inc., a nonprofit started in 2001 by George Edwards, better known as Bumper "T." (Edwards died May 26.)
Perry considered the pitch, thought about all the real doctors and patients struggling with injury and illness, then threw in a condition. "I felt a presentation was the best idea," she said. If the nurses liked the idea, then the hospital would give it a try.
Three years later, Mason and four volunteers have become regular visitors on three Roper St. Francis campuses. Few patients turn them away, and many express heartfelt gratitude for their presence, which is both distracting and reassuring.
They start with the nurses station, find out if any patients are off-limits.
Often, Mason said, the nurses recommend visits with certain people. They follow Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act laws strictly, keeping all medical information confidential.
Last week, Mason, who calls himself Dr. Geezer, joined Sara Painter (Dr. Shake N. Bake) and Beulah Gorecki (Dr. Jollybones) at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley, where they checked in on a few patients.
Edward Cahill was expecting to be released later that day. He was all smiles when the "doctors" entered the room.
Ray Harwood, a military veteran and avid trombone player, was in bed after emergency surgery and happy to see the Caring Clowns.
And Mary Arnold, who was coping with an untimely kidney ailment, was cheered up immediately when Mason and his entourage paid a short visit.
"I was really down yesterday," Arnold said, "and when they came in, that just topped my day off."
Bumper "T" Caring Clowns operates at 24 hospitals in the Mid-Atlantic region, California, Washington and South Carolina. It relies on about 400 volunteers and has one paid administrator, Mason said.
After Caring Clowns made its presentation to the Roper St. Francis staff, which included founder Edwards shortly before his death, the significance of the program became clear.
"I quickly understood it wasn't a silly, falling-down act, but gentle humor," Perry said. "It felt almost more like a chaplain's visit."
As his business career approached its end, Mason was looking for something light-hearted to do.
In 2000, he enrolled at Mooseburger Clown Camp in Minnesota, where he learned the basics: how to apply the makeup correctly, how to transform balloons into animals.
The goal was to apply these skills to the real world. Mason specialized in nursing home and hospital clowning. Today, he serves on the board of Caring Clowns.
Gorecki and Painter already were volunteering at Bon Secours St. Francis when they heard about the program.
Gorecki, 84, always has been interested in dressing up, parades, humor and social interaction, she said.
A big Red Skelton fan, and full of energy, Gorecki took naturally to her role as Dr. Jollybones.
She said it is particularly gratifying to engage patients who have an interesting life story but not always the friends or family to tell it to.
Painter, 60, said she was deemed the class clown in high school. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, a self-fulfilling prophecy,' " she said.
A retired school administrator, she relocated to Charleston from North Carolina with her husband two years ago, determined to take up some volunteer work.
She said helping seniors seems to make the biggest impact.
"Oftentimes, there's not a lot of family coming in to see them," Painter said. "Often, we are the first people they see in a couple of days."
Mason said the Caring Clowns strive to put people at ease. As Dr. Geezer, he carries a special prescription pad. "Take one SMILE before breakfast, two HUGS after lunch and one KISS at bedtime," one reads. Refills are infinite.
Gorecki recounted a typical scenario. One day not long ago, a patient's daughter explained to Dr. Jollybones that her mother would have to go to rehab. The mother was distressed. "Can you talk to her?" she asked Gorecki.
Too often, Gorecki said, patients feel discarded, sidelined or inadequate; they feel as though they've reached an end, or that their lives suddenly aren't worth much.
"So I went in to explain that she was not being thrown away, that it was just part of the medical care," Gorecki said.
Clowning, she noted, is serious business.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.