Good Causes

Annie’s mission: giving seriously ill children a giggle

Ted Lenihan (above, right) faced many challenges in his short life. When he died in May 2024 at the age of 21, he had endured multiple surgeries and many rounds of injections to reduce spasms and pain caused by conditions including dystonic cerebral palsy, congenital heart disease and epilepsy.

Annie Aris, a laughter therapist who met Ted when he was 4-years-old and worked with him on and off into his late teens, says he “always found a laugh and a giggle” despite the many difficulties he faced.

She said, “Ted overcame every challenge he faced and bounced back time after time. He was very intelligent and his sense of humour was outstanding.

“He really got to me. He never complained, he just got on with it.”

Annie has a long held conviction that laughter can benefit sick and vulnerable children. Indeed, research suggests that a good chuckle can alleviate the symptoms of many ailments, lower blood pressure and release endorphins. As a trained nursery nurse with a background in theatre and pantomime, Annie was ideally qualified to use laughter as a therapeutic tool.

After working as a ‘clown doctor’ at some of the UK’s best-known hospitals – she was the first female ‘clown doctor’ at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children – Annie broadened her work by co-founding a National Lottery-funded project called The Laughter Specialists. Founded in 2007, it supports children across southeast England by providing laughter therapy in hospitals, schools, hospices as well as one to one sessions in families’ homes.

Annie’s approach to laughter therapy has evolved over the years. During a typical session she will use a combination of music, magic tricks and all manner of “horns and squeakers” to raise a smile.

For Annie, bringing laughter to young children going through treatment or living with disabilities, not only helps brighten their day, but supports their families too. She said, “To see a child who’s poorly in hospital is tough on the children, but it’s also tough on the families and the people around them. When you see the child laugh it makes the adult relax a bit and opens up communication between them.”

When Ted was admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge in late 2018, the Laughter Specialists made regular visits during his 4-month stay. The weekly sessions helped him stay mentally strong and continue to enjoy life.

During the pandemic, the Laughter Specialists continued to support him by sending bespoke films and making socially-distanced visits to his home in Stansted.

Annie said, “Louise (Ted’s mother) always made us most welcome in her beautiful home and often joined in the sessions and laughed together. Humour was important to them all as a family and Louise herself was often joking with Ted at our visits.”

Annie added, “I will miss Ted so much. His personality and character just showed us all how resilient children and young people are when it comes to coping with very severe conditions.

“The service we provide is essential to people like Ted, but we also learn from the children we meet. It’s a privilege to be doing this work.”

27th July 2024

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