Patch Adams

What a disillusioned pre-med student learned from a wacky doctor's serious dream

Ever since I was twelve years old, I've wanted to nurture and help people live vibrant and healthy lives. I have always wanted to be a physician. When I turned 21, however, I was so disenchanted with the medical community that I passed on medicine in favor of working my way around the world for a year. During this journey, I learned that every interaction has the potential to change your outlook and perspective on life.

On April 22, 1996, after I started working as a research assistant in a VA hospital, my perspective changed: I walked into Rodney's room frustrated, burnt out, and ready to quit. Working with terminal and physically disabled patients had proved both physically and emotionally exhausting. As I entered his room, Rodney picked up his head, smiled, and greeted me with a joke.

He then leaned over and spoke to me in a serious tone, “You know what the worst part about this place is? It's that it is so damn lonely, depressing, and sterile. Hospitals should make you feel good to be alive, to motivate you to get well. ... They don't. They just suck the life right out of you!” Three weeks later, Rodney died at the age of thirty-eight. As I pondered my own medical future, I realized that he was right. Hospitals do tend to drain energy and life out of people.

For over twenty years, researchers have demonstrated the powerful effects that laughter, play, and humor can have on healing. So why is it that hospitals across the country aren't doing more to deliberately incorporate these lessons into making hospitals more fun, energizing, and ultimately healthier for patients and staff? Do medical facilities have to be “lonely, depressing, and sterile” places?

Not according to Patch Adams, MD, a physician and professional clown made famous by the recent film bearing his name, which starred Robin Williams. For 27 years, Adams has advocated the powerful effects that fun, joy, love, humor, creativity, and community have on healing. Adams has made a name for himself in the healing community by standing out from the crowd, challenging traditional medical models, and promoting his radical healthcare delivery system.

“I am building the world's first silly hospital,” he says. “It will be a work of art that includes all the healing arts and all healing modalities.”

Not your average physician

Last April, I spent two days with Patch Adams during his visit to a nearby university. The first time I saw him, he was sitting atop a table wearing his usual fluorescent yellow and orange clown attire and mismatched purple and green socks as he spoke to a crowd of students.

With a miniature dinner fork earring dangling from his left ear, blue streaks running down the middle of his long gray ponytail, and a bushy handlebar mustache, the 6'5” Patch Adams is not your ordinary physician. Adams, a self-certified “lunatic” whose optimism is contagious, has been the driving force behind the Gesundheit Institute, a nonprofit, holistic healing community located on 320 acres in Pocohantas County, West Virginia. Once its construction is complete, the Institute hospital will be dedicated to providing totally free healthcare to the community at large.

Adams' history is as interesting as his attire. As a college freshman, he committed himself to an inpatient psychiatric hospital for depression and, from that time on, promised himself that he would live every day full of joy, passion, and purpose. After graduating from the Medical College of Virginia and completing his internship year at Georgetown, he quit his residency.

“They taught me that you shouldn't touch your patients. That you should always distance yourself from them. What kind of system would do that?” he asks.

Not willing to practice medicine in a system that he deemed unhealthy and detrimental, Adams began dreaming and fantasizing about creating his own brand of healthcare. What if a group of healers got together to create their fantasy hospital? he wondered. What would happen if you provided totally free service to the community and refused to carry any malpractice insurance? What if you created a community infused with love, humor, fun, and creativity that would serve as a hospital?

The magic elixirs of life

Adams started the Gesundheit Institute, literally meaning the “wellness” institute, in 1971. For 12 years, he ran a hospital out of his house, 24 hours a day, and never charged a cent. With the help of volunteers, he provided free care to an estimated 15,000 people during that time. In 1983, the need for a real facility became apparent, and Adams shifted his focus to raising money full-time to fund his dream and also to promote health and wellness on a global scale.

“I have spoken to doctors all over the world, and the worst illness that they or I have ever seen is not cancer, it's not even heart disease – rather it is the disease of loneliness. Loneliness is a medical emergency. Happiness is a revolutionary act,” Adams says. This philosophy is the foundation of the Gesundheit Institute.

Adams promotes his own special prescription for good health – one that includes love, family, exercise, humor, community, fun, faith, passion, wonder, and curiosity. He calls them the “magic elixirs of life,” and he has been prescribing them to patients since the early 1970s.

“If you put these elixirs into your life, even if you are going to die in a week, you are going to be healthy,” says Adams. “You see, healthy for me is living a happy, vibrant, exuberant life.”

Plus, he adds, “The most hopeful elixir in our society is community. If anything is going to save us from extinction, it will be that because we recreate a clear sense that our security, our love, and the forces that sustain people in life come from the group of people who care for us.”

When he was seeing patients, Adams' initial interviews with them usually lasted three to four hours. “I would literally walk patients around their own house and introduce themselves to themselves,” Adams chuckles. Spend that much time talking, observing, and walking with someone and, Adams notes, “You'll see their passion.”

Money, power, and medicine

Watching Adams speak and perform today, one can't help but find his enthusiasm contagious. Standing in front of a roomful of students, Adams reaches into his multicolored bag, turns around, and suddenly transforms himself from a long-haired physician into his soft, silly, and somewhat naive clown character. It comes as no surprise that Adams leads a group of 15 clowns to Russia every year on a goodwill mission to bring humor into the hospitals, orphanages, and mental hospitals. This is the same man, after all, whose repertoire includes dressing up as a gorilla and, upon entering a foreign country, handing the customs agent a bunch of bananas instead of a passport.

Though this wacky doctor's goal is to build the world's first silly hospital, his mission is not to be taken lightly. During his lecture, Adams says in a booming voice, “The modern gods of our society are money and power. I am really offended by the consequences of these gods on medicine. I can't think of anything about the healing interaction that should have anything to do with money. I don't know where that got into it.”

Instead, Adams argues, society must think before it acts, before it builds hospitals. “Why do we build something that no one wants to go to anyway? I am simply suggesting we build a solution that everyone loves.”

Hang around Patch Adams even for a few minutes, and you'll see why he has turned some skeptics into ardent supporters. “I seduce them,” he confides, “with my passion and exuberance for life, healing, and people.” It is no wonder then that after this lecture, a group of about 30 people crowd around him to find out how they can help him make his dream a reality and offer promises to volunteer on the Institute's site in West Virginia.

I am one of them.

The world's first silly hospital

I felt compelled to see what the hoopla surrounding Patch Adams was all about. On a warm, sunny day this past May, after a 10-hour drive from Buffalo, New York, I arrived at the Gesundheit Institute. Though no hospital building exists and no patients have yet been seen, the Institute provides wonderful opportunities for volunteers to help prepare the land and build the community that will sustain the hospital once it is built.

For one week, I got down and dirty and helped plant potatoes, weed gardens, move wood, and plant new flowers to help beautify the land. By the second day – and for the first time in months – I felt energized and healthy. Perhaps it was the air, the food (vegetarian), reconnecting with the land, or simply joyful service that helped me feel better. I really don't know! Yet, there was something about Gesundheit that seeped into my skin.

Kathy Blomquist, the overseer of the land and coordinator of the volunteer program, credits this energized feeling to the “Gesundheit” mindset. According to Blomquist, Gesundheit is not just about building a hospital, it's “about living life with passion and purpose and adopting the attitude of joyful service.” Thus, Gesundheit is a way of life that can be taken with you wherever you go.

The key to healing, according to Blomquist, is taking care of oneself first and then looking out for one other person. If we did this, Blomquist declares, “we would have a very healthy society.”

Doctors, healers, and friends

The 320 acres of land that Adams has chosen for the location of his future hospital encompasses rolling hills, hidden caves, several waterfalls, a pond, treehouses, gardens, and greenery as far as the eye can see. The surroundings certainly had a soothing and healing effect on me. This picturesque setting promises to be the perfect backdrop for the world's first “silly” hospital.

Take a moment and imagine a hospital that looks like Willy Wonka and Monty Python drew up the architectural plans. From the outside in, the hospital will stupefy and amuse the soul. Various parts of the buildings will be designed with the body in mind. A giant ear will stick off one end of the building, a huge eye will sit in the center, and giant feet will mark the entrance to the hospital. Below the main floors of the hospital, water passageways will allow people to travel from one end of the hospital to the other via paddle boat. Inside, beautiful murals will cover the walls, toys will line the floors, and secret doorways and slides will provide added mystique and amusement. Indeed, this hospital will be the wackiest, strangest, and funniest place people have ever gone to heal. But standing in the way of Adams' dream is $20 million.

During the last 27 years, Gesundheit has survived solely on donations, mostly of the $5 and $10 variety from the public and from Patch's speaking fees. Adams admits that it is hard to get large donations because of his refusal to carry malpractice insurance. To him, this policy is not negotiable. “I'd rather give up the hospital then carry malpractice insurance. I won't mistrust my patients.”

But the money may finally be around the corner. Adams anticipates that the publicity from the film based on his life will help with the fundraising effort.

More than just science

As a future physician, I feel lucky to have spent time with Patch Adams. I have learned that healing is much more than just science. It's also about having passion and purpose. This knowledge will make me a better doctor, healer, and friend.

As a result of my involvement with Gesundheit, my perspective on life has once again changed. Previously, I viewed medicine as being too serious and limiting. Now I realize that I do not have to divorce who I am from what I do. Rather, by acknowledging my playful, humorous side and bringing all of myself to medicine, I will communicate better with my patients, and I ultimately will be a happier and more effective physician. I owe this realization to Gesundheit.

During one of my last conversations with Adams, he told me, “We're not the answer. We are just one alternative. Gesundheit is meant to be a stimulant and an irritant. I hope it's a stimulus for you to ask yourself and your community, ‘What is your fantasy hospital? What are your dreams?'”

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