They wear white coats and scrubs, just like other staff members at Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House.

But the big red noses and oversized shoes instantly send the message that these "doctors" are not here to talk medicine.

Since the clowns are not doctors, their titles are listed on their lab coats as DR rather than Dr.

Such is the case with DR Blarney Stone, also known as Dan Meenan, of Dennis Township. If he gets a laugh, or even just a smile from a patient, he's done his job.

Meenan is one of the newer members of the Bumper "T" Caring Clowns, a nonprofit all-volunteer group that visits patients in hospitals. Started in 2001, the group now has more than 100 specially trained clowns in 27 hospitals in six states, including Cape Regional, Shore Medical Center in Somers Point and AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.

Bill Smigo, of Cape May, who knew the original Bumper "T," helped found the group at Cape Regional seven years ago. He said their goal is not to perform or do tricks, but just to visit with - and listen to - patients.

"The emphasis is on caring," said Smigo, whose alter ego is DR Gismo, a play on Smigo. "To do, this you can't just want to be a clown. You have to have a caring heart. We always get permission before we go into a room, and we always treat people with respect."

Volunteers get training on serious matters - including patient privacy laws - then spend some time shadowing a clown before graduating and getting their own clown identity. They get funny noses and wear some makeup, but don't want to look too clownlike. Most of the patients they visit are adults, although they have some tricks they'll perform for younger patients.

"They do specific rounds," said Julie Paolella, director of volunteer services at Cape Regional, "and the nurses will tell them if they think someone especially needs a visit, or is having a bad day and just needs to rest. Sometimes a clown is just what the doctor ordered."

Paolella interviews prospective clowns, looking for that right mix of fun and caring.

Meenan had met a Caring Clown at another facility, so when he came to Cape Regional looking to volunteer, and Paolella suggested the clown program, he happily said yes.

"Our family had a terrible year in 2012," he said. "But God got us through it, and I said I would do something in thanks."

George Wasser, of Middle Township, had volunteered at the hospital in the late 1990s. When he returned, Paolella suggested he be a Caring Clown. Wasser said that in the past he would mostly feed people who had strokes and could not communicate. This new role, as DR B. Happy, is very different.

"Now I talk to them, learn more about them," he said.

Paul Tyburski and his wife Barbara work as a couple, DR Sunny and DR Buttons and Bows. Retired teachers, they had moved to Middle Township, missed the daily interaction with students and staff and looked around for a way to meet new people.

"This has been far beyond what we expected," Barbara Tyburski said. "I get so much back, even from someone who can only squeeze your hand. We don't try to be funny. We're just there, listening."

"You do have to be a good listener," Paul Tyburski said. "Sometimes it's hard to leave."

If necessary Paul Tyburski pulls a shell out of his pocket and announces he has to leave to take a call on his "shell phone."

The jokes are corny, as are the buttons that decorate the clowns' lab coats.

"I'm not a doctor, but I'll take a look," says one. Or "Don't follow me, I'm lost."

Maria Leonard of Cape May Court House, a.k.a. DR Ann T. Pasta, said she got involved as a way to brighten someone else's day, and her own.

"You just have to be open," she said. "Some days are joyful and some are a little sad. Sometimes you can tell you really made a difference to someone. And some days the patients make me feel better. It's been even better than I expected."

After their recent graduation ceremony, Meenan and Wasser visited with patient Beverly Trapp of West Wildwood, who said her family would not be the least bit surprised to see her surrounded by clowns.

"It's so nice they do this," she said. "It's really pretty cool."

Smigo said the clowns see themselves as part of the healing team at the hospital.

"We can spend the time that the doctors and nurses often can't," he said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241