Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Geno the Clown

Part of Shriners medicine


Gene Simpkins tells a story about a fellow clown, a nice guy who's a mortician in real life. "This man has probably seen everything," Gene says, "but every time he tries to go into the hospital, he starts crying and just can't make it."

Gene and his buddy are Syrian Shrine Clowns, and their specialty is going to their organization's hospitals, including Shriners Burns Hospital here and its counterpart for orthopedics in Lexington. "Some people just can't take seeing kids so hurt, all bandaged up and all," Gene says. "When I see them, I just think to myself that they're in a place that will give them a chance - the world's best hospital with the world's best doctors."

It is a pretty impressive place.

Downstairs, technically a reception area, looks like a small town square. The storefronts are in lollipop colors and flank Nintendo games and play sets and toys - something for children to do while they're waiting for a checkup at the outpatient clinic. Or maybe until they are checked in for a skin graft. Or physical therapy.



The thing they do not have is a billing department. There's no charge. Ever. The Shriners pick up the tab for acute care, for reconstruction, therapy, even for housing for the patient's family at the Avondale location and at every one of their 22 other children's hospitals.

The big payoff

A little boy from Tennessee got his pressure face mask on Thursday, his 10-month birthday. The mask, made from the same plastic used for motorcycle windshields, was melted in a huge oven and pressed over a plaster form. It reduces scarring and will replace the gauze bandage. Now Gene, or Geno the Clown as he is known in some circles, can get the payoff.

He'll be able to see the boy's smile.

"I always wanted to be in a clown suit," he says. First he wore a U.S. Marine suit. After he came home, he donned the uniform of a Cincinnati Police officer, retiring in 1986. Now, when he suits up it's in a violently colorful plaid jacket with enormous pockets full of candy and balloons.

It takes him about an hour to apply his makeup, the requisite broad smile and red face. The finishing touch is a big red nose, which he buys commercially for "maybe 50 cents." Everything else he makes himself. He covered a black bowler hat with refrigerator magnets and cut the fingers out of his white gloves, "so I can make balloon animals."

Gene, who lives in Norwood, is the clown chaplain for the 32-member unit here, and at funerals he reads a prayer: "Never let me forget that my worth is to cheer people up. . . make them forget momentarily unpleasant things in their lives."

Shriners like Gene have raised an astonishing amount of money for their hospitals. Since the first one was opened in Shreveport in 1922, nearly $8 billion has been spent. The Carl H. Lindner Family Jumping Classic has raised about $3 million just for the hospital here, which spent more than $30 million last year.

Excellence is not cheap.

But, for a child, I'm guessing that on certain days a 50-cent red nose is just the medicine he needs.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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