The healing hands of Bowral's Dr Fruit-Loop

Cancer patient Daimen Zylstra, 6, of Goulburn, goes nose to nose with Dr Peter Spitzer in 1999 (above).

Cancer patient Daimen Zylstra, 6, of Goulburn, goes nose to nose with Dr Peter Spitzer in 1999 (above).

Also known as Dr Fruit-Loop, Dr Spitzer pioneered Australia’s clown doctor program.

Also known as Dr Fruit-Loop, Dr Spitzer pioneered Australia’s clown doctor program.

It's his hands I remember best.

Gentle, comforting, and most of all warm, which for a child in the Bowral winter was most important.

They would apply a stethoscope, and it wouldn't shock. They'd prod your belly and somehow it wouldn't hurt. They could probe swollen glands under your jaw without causing pain.

The mood he created with his manner, and his rooms, was unique. You were safe; everything would be all right.

Moving into adulthood, it was still the hands, but now how they felt in a handshake. Soft and strong, confident, still gentle.

As a patient, you'd often be looking into his face when his hands, either for greeting or examination, met you. Strangely, the soft hands and the deep smile-lines in his cheeks somehow made it feel like he was shaking your hand with his face.

Sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but that's fine when talking about a clown. And it's worth it to try to describe the feeling everyone should have when they visit a good doctor. Legions of former patients also have moments, lodged in their memory with similar clarity, and they have been pouring forth now that Dr Peter Spitzer has died.

Many remembered him for founding Australia's clown doctor program, the Humour Foundation, which saw him travel the world teaching the benefits of laughter in medicine, for children and for adults. Others remembered him as their trusted country GP.

For me, it wasn't just the laughs. The mood he created with his manner, and his rooms, was unique. You were safe; everything would be all right.

The "surgery" was more like a lounge room. Wooden venetians softened the light. Plants inside and out soothed the eyes and through them, the mind. Smooth wooden carvings and discs of gentle music adorned the shelves.

The framed certificates said Dr Spitzer could do Western medicine, acupuncture, natural medicine, hypnosis. Not sure what "holistic" meant in year 3, we took it to mean he knew the "whole lot".

It was only later in life, in the more industrial medical centres, that I even noticed this atmosphere was not the norm for a doctor's room. But this was not an ordinary doctor.

When we took our young sons to see him two years ago, it started again with another generation. Out came the balloon animal tricks, and immediately they were comfortable.

Much from our early years slips through the cracks of our minds as we age, we outsource our memories to Google, live through more events which then compete for prominence of recall.

But our family doctor has dodged any attempt to slip out of the memory.

His patients were shocked to hear in January that Dr Spitzer was off on sick leave, indefinitely. It was sudden and scary.

Diagnosed last December, the cancer moved fast.

His memorial service, in Bowral on Thursday, heard how he treated the looming end with a peaceful smile, one that spoke of a man who had achieved plenty and lived a life of fun. But he would have given little thought to the glowing tributes that would flow, as powerful and perfect as you'll ever hear.

The eulogy started with games, where Humour Foundation artistic director David Symons and the packed crowd exchanged imaginary beach balls, thrown with a loud "woosh!". Then they started "zapping" and "boinging".

Attempts to get too serious were undermined by the series of photographs flashing by on a large screen - Spitzer with a large rubber glove over his head, or sporting a Thomas Magnum moustache, or dressed in a variety of clown suits.

Melancholy was further disrupted by the stories told by colleagues, of an innovative and ever-curious intellect always looking for better treatment for his patients.

And stories of Spitzer sparking up the mood of patients with red noses, whoopee cushions, all manner of props. One patient had been too long in the oncology ward and was past cheer. Spitzer sat down, said hello, whipped out his enormous novelty scissors, and chirped "how about a haircut?" Misery was trumped by hilarity and soon the lady was giggling. Her daughter, sitting bedside, was crying with relief and pleasure.

His Dr Fruit-Loop suit was hung up on stage next to the speaker's podium. Limp but not lifeless, it offered a promise, a reminder of how each part of it had given someone, probably hundreds, a laugh.

Sure, there were tears on Thursday, because whatever the legacy left by Spitzer the doctor, a man's family had lost a devoted husband, loving father, adoring grandfather. But the laughter and song outweighed the tears, on this day at least. The contingent of clown doctors on hand would have had it no other way, leading the crowd in renditions of You Are My Sunshine, When You're Smiling, and of course, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

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