02/20/2013 07:35 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Kathe LeBeau, Kidney Disease Survivor, Goes To Clown College After Life-Threatening Diagnosis

Kathe LeBeau And Kismet

Dreams from our childhood rarely get the chance to leave the sandbox. For 54-year-old Kathe LeBeau of Latham, New York, that dream was being a clown.

"I've always been that sort of person who enjoys kidding around and having fun," LeBeau told Huff/Post50. "I never really thought of the circus clown kind of image. My work and my leisure [activities] have always been around positive people connection [and] fun things. I thought about how freeing it would be [to be a clown]."

Working a 60-hour-a-week job running a program for adults with developmental disabilities kept LeBeau from exploring that dream.

"It was really simply a question of there's only 24 hours in the day and you're just kind of busy," she says now.

But an unexpected health scare before LeBeau's 50th birthday brought her fast-paced life to a grinding halt. The usually healthy LeBeau -- she had taught aerobics six days a week prior to getting married -- experienced gallbladder issues and was scheduled for surgery work-up. When doctors ran tests, they discovered her kidneys were only functioning at 35 percent of their ability.

LeBeau couldn't believe the kidney disease diagnosis. "'I can't possibly be sick, I feel fine!'" she remembered thinking. "[But] it's a silent disease -- it sneaks up on you. You just feel more and more tired."

The good news, LeBeau said, is that the doctors found it early enough to slow its progression. But she still needed to go on dialysis.

"I had to leave the job that I love because of the fatigue that comes with [kidney disease]," she says. "I had always been very active and now I was looking at four walls, sitting in a chair at home. I could walk to the mailbox and back. I had no idea if this is what I was going to be looking at for the rest of my life."

A year of home hemodialysis treatment pulled LeBeau back into the land of the living. She started working and traveling again. "I was searching for things that would put joy back into my life," she said.

It turned out what she was in search of would soon find her. One day she found a flier in the mail promoting a 12-week clowning class at a local community college. Bingo.

LeBeau had found her calling. "I loved it. I absolutely loved it," she said of clown college, laughing. "The instructor was another clown who had been doing it for 30-40 years. There were 10 other women in the class. You create this clown persona. You try on makeup and a name and a persona: are you a funny clown or a silly clown? Balloon animals and magic and that kind of thing."

After the course was over, LeBeau had the clowning bug and continued on to advanced clowning through the local Electric City Clown Alley and Shriner Clowns, free of charge. "Skits and putting on performances," she explained. "It's usually very slapstick comedy."

The look of her clown persona was very important to LeBeau, she said. "I was very mindful that people are afraid of clowns -- Steven King didn't do us any favors. I wanted to be a sweet, jolly and silly clown, [one that] made kids feel very comfortable. [My clown is] very brightly colored -- it's like a primary-color explosion!"

And when it came time to name her clown persona, LeBeau had the perfect one in mind: Kismet. "I felt like I was meant to be a clown," she said. "It takes a little while to get your head around the idea of being a clown. It's about working on letting go of any inhibitions and not being afraid of being silly."

Her May 2008 graduation ceremony, where she and fellow new clowns performed for the community, family and friends, left LeBeau feeling "elated"! "After learning and practicing, and being able to make each other laugh in class, it was daunting to take to the stage, with so many in the audience, including many very talented, long time local clowns," she told Huff/Post50. "But having it go well -- and having fun with it -- made that subsequent first gig out in the community much easier."

LeBeau has more than gotten used to the idea of clowning. She's made it a regular part of her life for the last five years, fitting it in within the limitations of her disease (she still needs dialysis treatment and deals with fatigue regularly). Kismet performs a couple of times a month for pediatric kidney patients, Ronald McDonald kids and those living in nursing homes.

It's a persona that has brought great joy not only to LeBeau's life, but to her friends and family as well.

"My friends' kids think it's terribly cool that they know a clown," she said. And her husband of 17 years "would laugh his head off when I came home from school -- I would [still] have a skull cap on and a wig.

"A couple of my friends have since gone to clown college… It created this whole group of different friends that were all mostly interested in helping people have fun and rediscovering joy," she continued. "Yes, I've gotten older and now I have this extra thing to deal with, but when your persona is a clown you can leave a lot of that behind."

And in its place is a lot of laughter and joy. LeBeau can barely contain her joy as she talks about the unexpected ways her clowning has brightened her world -- children chasing after her car when she's in full clown regalia; coaxing a smile from a grumpy plane seatmate when she gives them one of her red noses.

What would LeBeau say to people who want to follow their dreams but are afraid to?

"Don't let one day get too far away from you," she said passionately. "That's the other piece of why I started clowning… I really had no idea how much life I was looking at. We all take for granted the fact that we have endless amounts of days. Make sure that you're doing the things that are important, that you've always wanted to do. That sort of crystalized it for me. You just don't waste time.

"I have a finite amount of energy and I spend it doing the things that are important and meaningful to me," LeBeau continued. "It's become one of the great joys of my life. Eerybody should give clowning a try -- it's pure joy. Whatever does that for someone, that's a great thing for someone to do. That makes me really happy."

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