Rubber chicken and concertina in tow, Salem’s hospital clown lifts spirits

Mike Bednarek performs a card trick as Dr. Fun E. Bone for an 18-year-old pediatric patient at Salem Hospital on Aug. 25, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mike Bednarek slides a rubber chicken through a crack in a hospital room door before asking if he can come inside.

Though he’s wearing scrubs and a white lab coat, Bednarek, 66, is a far cry from the usual professionals coming and going in Salem Hospital’s pediatric ward.

If the chicken assistant (named Dr. Fowl Breath) doesn’t give the game away, his oversized Converse shoes and red nose clue patients in quickly.

“Good morning, I’m Dr. Fun E. Bone, Chief of Stupidity around here,” his usual introduction begins.

Bednarek recently celebrated his seventh anniversary as the hospital’s volunteer clown. He visits weekly on Wednesday mornings, spending a few hours visiting kids and parents in the pediatric unit, plus any kids in the emergency room who could use a little cheering up.

His most recent visit began with a check in at the nurse’s station, where assistant nurse manager Janelle Williams ran down a list of the unit’s current occupants.

Already in character, Bednarek took notes in brown crayon, writing down the patient’s ages, rooms, and which ones had precautions in place that wouldn’t allow him entry to the room.

Hospital clown Dr. Fun E. Bone, Mike Bednarek, pins a paper flower outside a child’s room at Salem Hospital on Aug. 25, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

His first stop was an 18-year-old boy on the ward who had his mother and another relative staying with him.

The teen was up in bed and had a slightly incredulous look on his face as Bednarek entered with his chicken and a black doctor’s bag bursting with colorful clowning supplies. He glanced at the clown’s hospital-issued ID badge.

“Wow, your name is actually Dr. Fun E. Bone,” he said.

The clown tailors his routine to the patient’s age. With teens, he tends to lean into the corny jokes and employs card tricks, offering to show them how they’re done so long as they promise not to share the secret.

“Did you hear the one about the cooties in the hospital?” Bednarek asked, leaving a pregnant pause in the room. “I don’t want to tell you – I don’t want to spread it around.”

The teen dissolved into laughter, slapping his bed several times.

“That was so bad!” he said.

Though teens have a reputation for being skeptical, Bednarek said they’re far and away his best audience.

“They’re so ready to drop all the funny stuff and play,” he said.

(Video by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Bednarek first dressed as a clown for a college party when he was a junior at the University of Oregon. He’d never been a class clown, but said the costume brought out something inside him.

His clowning career truly began in 1980 after he moved to Salem, he said. A neighbor who worked for Oregon State University knew of his interest and suggested he take a weekend clowning workshop. From there, he developed his character Buster, a physical comedian who provided entertainment at parties and events.

In 2003, Bednarek’s 14-year-old daughter became seriously ill and was diagnosed with kidney disease. She ended up at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where he got to see pediatric health care in action.

“They saved her life and got her going,” he said.

Soon after, Bednarek realized the mysterious illness that had been plaguing him for much of that year was thyroid cancer that had spread around his throat, requiring chemotherapy and radiation.

“There were some dark days.” he said.

In the midst of his treatment, Bednarek said he heard a voice one day. God was telling him, “I’m not done with you yet.” He wanted to use his clowning to help people.

Bednarek resolved that when he retired, he’d go into hospital clowning. In 2013, he “retired for the fourth and final time” from his job working on special projects for the Salem-Keizer School District. Soon after, his weekly hospital rounds began.

Bednarek’s goal is a simple one – uplifting spirits by giving patients something other than the endless array of hospital procedures to focus on.

Hospital clown Dr. Fun E. Bone, also known as Mike Bednarek, plays concertina in the emergency room at Salem Hospital on Aug. 25, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

His Wednesday visit included stops in a room with a young girl (he performed rubber chicken acrobatics from her door) and a mother with her four-day-old baby, who got a folded origami flower made from colorful sheets of paper he carries in his pocket.

He remains in his clown character, making jokes at his own expense.

“I generally don’t know what’s wrong with them,” he said of the patients he visits. “I clown to what’s right in them.”

Williams, the assistant nurse manager, said his presence can be calming for kids who are in the hospital regularly or for long stays.

Recently, she said the pediatric team had a kid who has a port and hates procedures that involve it. Bednarek stayed with them during the procedure, helping the child feel more comfortable.

“For those patients, it can make a big difference. It gives them something different,” she said.

Bednarek’s regular visits were suspended for about six months in 2020 as the pandemic hit and most hospitals barred non-essential visitors. He spent that time learning to play the concertina, a skill made easier by his childhood accordion playing.

Leaving the pediatric unit, he stopped and sat on a bench by the elevators, playing “Amazing Grace,” then “Smile,” a song written by Charlie Chaplain and popularized by Nat King Cole. A hospital worker stopped to listen, taking a short pause before going back to work.

It’s something he does every visit now, he said – his way of pushing himself to get better at performing.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Janelle Williams’ first name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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