Clowning around

April 15, 2006

When Stephen R. Powell, MD, is spreading cheer throughout the community, his patients usually do not recognize him. Why? Dr. Powell moonlights as a unicycle-riding clown.

At work, Dr. Powell is managing partner of Regional Eye Associates, Morgantown, WV, a private group of eight ophthalmologists and three optometrists serving rural areas of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

On one wheel

"After a number of tries-and several bruises-I just took off," he continued. "I continued to practice and learn things along the way including . . . bouncing up and riding down steps and riding with someone on my shoulders."

He has even taught a few friends to ride over the years.

"In college at West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown, I would bet fraternities that I could ride up and down Fraternity Row, which is a very hilly, old brick road," Dr. Powell said. "I made quite a bit of spending money."

Dr. Powell also took his talents to children's wards at local hospitals.

"Sometimes, it is just important to give the kids something to smile and laugh about," he said.

Dr. Powell has created his own costumes and does his own clown makeup. Now, he only rides in two or three events a year, including the Autumn Glory Festival in Oakland, MD, and the Preston County, WV, annual Buckwheat Festival, which he participated in with retired local physician, Paul Getty, MD, of Kingwood, WV.

"Dr. Getty is still riding unicycles at age 70," Dr. Powell said. "He has designed unicycles where the wheels are stacked two and three high. One performer in his group rides a unicycle that is 10 feet high. Dr. Getty does plan to retire from clowning soon, and I will miss his kindred spirit."

Dr. Powell said he often stops to visit with some of his patients along parade routes and that they often don't recognize him.

"Some laugh and tell me I'm too old to ride a unicycle," he said.

Dr. Powell has given up the tall unicycles he rode in his youth for the safer low-riding types.

"It's a lot easier to land and my knees and hands do not take such a beating," he said.

Dr. Powell finds other ways to incorporate humor in his business. He has been working on ventriloquism (using a Donald Duck voice) at work and uses it with hand puppets to examine pediatric patients.

"Kids are fascinated with it and it distracts them long enough that a better evaluation is possible," he said. "Parents think I'm a bit strange, but the kids look forward to coming back.