Balloon animals therapy for Bippy the Clown - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Balloon animals therapy for Bippy the Clown

Ron Pritchard works on his balloon-making skills as part of his recovery from a spinal cord injury.

Ron Pritchard works on his balloon-making skills as part of his recovery from a spinal cord injury.

By David Walter
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Sometimes, clowning around can be a good thing. Just ask Ron Pritchard.

Pritchard, 73, wound up in the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center in early June after a moped accident. The crash left him with a spinal cord injury and nerve damage.

“When I got here, I walked like Frankenstein’s monster – clop, clop, clop, clop,” he said, adding that his right hand was curled and stiff.

As part of Pritchard’s rehabilitation, physical therapist Annette Grefig recommended that Pritchard make balloon animals.

While that may sound like an unconventional therapy, it’s actually perfect for Pritchard.

That’s because for more than 40 years, Pritchard has moonlighted in the Milwaukee area as Bippy the Clown.

“I love kids, and I love to entertain,” Pritchard said of why he became a clown. “It was something I started doing in 1973-74 to make a little extra money.”

Now, after two months in the SCI Center, Pritchard is improving his dexterity by creating dogs, birds and all manner of animals out of balloons.

“We knew that Ron was Bippy the Clown, and we knew he could make balloon animals and thought it would be a really good intervention that was fun and about him,” Grefig said.

During a recent session, Pritchard joked with Grefig while working with the balloons, while Grefig goaded him to stand unassisted as long as possible while making the animals.

While tying off some of the balloons was a little tricky, Pritchard proved he still has what it takes to keep his clown credentials, creating a balloon dog he gave to physical therapist Johnny Kuhn, expressly for Kuhn’s daughter.

“We’re working on his hand function and his standing balance. This combines both of those things,” Grefig said, noting that twisting the balloons works Pritchard’s fine motor skills.

Pritchard said the exercises have worked wonders.

Ron Pritchard and Annette Grefig

Physical therapist Annette Grefig offers encouragement while Ron Pritchard makes a balloon animal, something he has done for more than 40 years as a birthday clown. The work has helped return movement and dexterity to his hands and fingers.

“This gets my fingers going. It’s really great to have the dexterity to be able to do this again,” he said, noting that after the accident his left hand was fine but his right hand was “iffy.”

“I’m improving a lot, thanks to this young lady,” Pritchard said, pointing to Grefig, who said Pritchard has made great progress and will likely be back home by early August.

“Ron is fun to work with,” Grefig said. “He works very hard, and I ask a lot of him. I think we make a good team.”

Bippy the clown
Bippy the Clown, also known as Ron Pritchard, is recovering from a spinal cord injury at the Milwaukee VA.

“Like Laurel and Hardy,” Pritchard said with a grin.

“It’s never a dull moment in PT when I’m working with Ron,” Grefig said.

A resident of South Milwaukee, Pritchard served in the U.S. Army in the midi-1960s in Korea. He worked for 21 years at Catholic Knights Insurance, which is where he first started doing shows as Bippy.

From there, he progressed to parades, birthday parties and fairs. He would also portray Santa Claus during the Christmas season.

His act includes magic and a puppet named Dudley, who is controlled by Pritchard’s daughter Holly.

He said clowns are good entertainment for children ages 5-8.

“Before 5, they say, ‘I don’t care.’ After 8, they say, ‘I know how you did that’,” he said.

He admitted the clowning gigs have become fewer in recent years, and that a local clowning organization with which he was affiliated – Clowns for Hire – is no longer in business.

Still, he hopes to put on the makeup, wig and clown outfit once again someday.

“I hope so,” he said.

“And I’ll be able to make some balloon animals,” Grefig said. “So I’ve also learned a skill.”


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