Clowning around: The Patch Adams Story
Almost everyone has heard the age-old saying “Laughter is the best medicine.” Most of us don’t take it literally, thinking it’s just a ploy for doctors to keep children (and even some adults) from crying or frowning when they are sick and when they are visiting the doctor’s office. However, what most
people don’t realize is that there is some truth behind this statement, and no one knows it better than Hunter Campbell Adams.
Hunter Campbell Adams, or Patch Adams as he is fondly known, is an American medical doctor, author, diplomat and professional clown. Born in 1945, Patch Adams decided to study medicine in order to use this as a means of bringing about social change. According to his biography, he began medical school without a previous undergraduate degree, and earned his medical doctorate a few years later,
from the Medical College of Virginia.
Much is known about Patch Adams’ life through his biography, available online. Patch Adams was married to Linda Edquist, whom he met while studying at MCV. Though the couple divorced, they have two children.
An award-winning film in his namesake was produced in 1998, paying tribute to Patch Adams’ life and works. The cast was led by Robin Williams playing the title character, and, though poorly received by critics, was considered a box-office success, making the clown doctor a household name.
Patch Adams believed that a person’s health is closely related to his/her
environment. Basically, he believed that the health of one person is affected by the health and state of his/her family and community. Thus, true wellness is achieved by maintaining physical health, but by emotional health as well.
Laughter was one means Patch Adams used in order to achieve whole wellness. Indeed, he took the age-old saying to heart. Laughter does have positive effects to the body, in the emotional aspect. When a person laughs, signals are sent to the brain, and the body produces endorphins, which give a lasting feeling of joy.
When people are sick, they usually become gloomy or morose. Children, especially, become sad when they are sick, and become passive while they get better. Moreover, they hate taking medicines, so being sick feels more and more like a punishment and they have nothing to be happy about. Children who are confined in hospitals for long periods of time also feel the cold environment of their ward or room. Most hospitals usually do not have play areas for younger patients to play in, so their routine is fixed and dotted with the occasional medicine-taking or consultation with doctors. Thus, they feel even gloomier as they feel the gravity of their disease despite the efforts of their parents to make them feel better.
This is how Patch Adams thought of literally, laughter as the best medicine to help uplift spirits of both children and adults and help them recuperate faster. A person’s disposition can significantly affect his/her healing process, and Patch Adams strongly believes in this.
Because of this, Patch Adams formed an organization in the late sixties, which helps bring joy and cheer to the sick and orphaned in various institutions and hospitals worldwide. The Gesundheit Institute is a nonprofit organization that focuses on holistic medical care. According to its website, the Gesundheit Institute believes that the health of an individual cannot be separated from the health of the individual’s community, family and the rest of the world. It has existed for thirty-seven years, and its volunteers range from medical practitioners and educators.
The Gesundheit Institute also underlines care as the center or medical interaction. They believe that proper medical care should be readily available to anyone who needs it. According to its official website, the institute keeps the following principles in mind through their various projects and endeavors:
- Care is free.
- Patients are treated as friends.
- Ample time is given to the care interaction (e.g. initial interviews with patients are 3 hours long).
- All complementary medicine is welcomed.
- The health of the staff is as important as the health of the patients.
- Care is infused with fun and play.
The Gesundheit Institute envisions an ideal health care system, based on Patch Adams’ philosophy of emotional healing being an integral part of overall healing. Health care professionals have since been able to give lectures and visit 65 countries to spread the vision of the ideal health care system.
With help from the volunteers at Gesundheit Institute, Patch Adams helps bring clown doctors to different parts of the world to bring cheer to the sick and dying. No, these are not your regular sterile, serious doctors. Neither are they fake doctors. These are doctors who inject humor and laughter into the lives of their patients and make them feel better in order to make their suffering lighter and make their recovery speedier.
Volunteers sing and dance and tell stories to children and orphans in war-ridden countries and sometimes, to third world countries whose hospitals cannot even afford proper health care and facilities. This makes them forget about their illnesses and allows them to have fun and just be kids. The clowns also bring aid in the form of food and medicines to these territories, and have teamed up with local partner institutions to make the process easier and more efficient, ensuring that the materials go where they are desperately needed.
This project is part of the Gesundheit Global Outreach, the sector of Gesundheit Institute, which focuses on international projects, including the sending of clown doctors, which is called Humanitarian Clowning. Humanitarian Clowning is personalized, bedside clowning. The volunteers hope to make the patients feel better from the way they dress to the way they speak. Interestingly, this is the reason for Patch Adam’s rather unusual appearance at times. He is known to have unusually colored hair, mismatched clothes and brightly colored ties in order to invoke laughter from the people he meets.
Humanitarian Clowning has been recognized globally, and local clowning groups in the countries Gesundheit Institute has visited have even sprouted up, further establishing the legacy Patch Adams is leaving.
Among the legacies Patch Adams wants to leave is his vision of the ideal medical care system made into a reality. He has the vision of putting up a free hospital based in Virginia, which still keeps to heart his belief that emotional, as well as physical wellness matters in healing. The Gesundheit Institue unveiled a project to build the forty-bed hospital, and began collecting funds in order to do so. West Virginia is said to be one of the poorest states that cannot afford proper health care. This idea stemmed from a small project, which Patch helped start when Gesundheit was fairly new. A six-bedroom house was converted into a mini-hospital to cater to patients who came in droves. According to Patch, they saw 500 to a thousand people each month, with anywhere between five to fifty people staying in the house along with the volunteers and sometimes, their family. They were open all day to be able to entertain as many people as possible, but this would still not be enough. They had to stop this project in 1983 to be able to devote their time to the international Gesundheit Global projects.
Years later, the project was thought of again, and solid plans were made to create a village or facility that would expand the project they have already made. They needed more room to spread joy and cheer and help cure more people, and thus the idea of this project was born.
Along with this problem, Patch Adams also wanted to help in spreading the Gesundheit belief to the world, and wanted to create a Teaching center that would enable people to see his idea of health care design.
Not only this, Patch wanted to make sure his volunteers are properly cared for as well, and not subjected to exhaustion or overexertion. He also understands the need of some doctors to have their families with them, thus living space should be adequately allotted for the families.
Consequently, plans have been drawn up for a facility incorporating all these on the Gesundheit land. This facility will have a 40-bed rural hospital, as mentioned; living quarters for the Gesundheit clowning volunteers, doctors and families; and beds for guests. There will also be a large space devoted to an arts facility, making it an arts-centered hospital. There will be an agricultural school as well as a school devoted to social work and social transformation. Patch has said on his website that the facility will look odd, but it will be “full of magic and surprises.”
The institute has been rallying for fundraising ideas to build the teaching center and clinic, which is divided into five phases. The cost is estimated to be US$ 1 million, and the institute has devoted years 2008 and 2009 to collect that money. Friends of the institution have noted the deteriorating quality of health care in the United States, and believe Patch Adams’ idea can help revive it. As of this writing, phases 4 and 5 are under way.
The volunteers have been working tirelessly to collect enough money through various fundraisers to pay for the construction and maintenance of the facility. Patch Adams believes that it will not be very expensive to do this, after careful budgeting and forecasting of expenses. Dave Sellers, the architect, worked closely with the institution to create the perfect facility that would aid volunteers in helping their patients and spread the sense of happiness they wish to impart in the patients. Sellers have made the preliminary drawings for the teacher’s center. Until the construction is fully completed, workers are still giving all their efforts into the other Gesundheit projects. Meanwhile, Patch continues to be a speaker and shares his message of health and humor to various nations around the world. Patch Adams’ next stop is Japan, where he will continue to spread smiles. This kind of work really doesn’t end. Patch Adams continues to bring his ideals and visions to different countries.
Also, the Gesundheit Clown doctors have several clown doctor sessions in various countries lined up. They are scheduled to visit South Italy, Romania, North Italy, Peru and Costa Rica in the following months. They are also scheduled to visit Moscow later in the year, where they have been regular visitors for 25 years.
Patch Adams also helps update his website along with his team of volunteers. Patchadams.org contains news articles and updates from the volunteers as well as Patch’s blog and contact details to reach Patch himself, for people who want to book him as a guest speaker. Updates about the teacher’s facility are also available, as well as contact details for anyone who wants to become a clown doctor. Prior clowning experience isn’t necessary, the website says, because the love for work and the wholehearted love for caring for others is already a good start.
Truly, Patch Adams has already left a lasting legacy to the field of medical and health care in the world. Who knew that his entire life’s work could be triggered by one simple statement that was thought to be a mere saying? Patch Adams has proved that yes, laughter is the best medicine, and medicine doesn’t have to be a punishment. Children and adults no longer have to stay in bed with a frown. All it takes is someone to sing or dance to chase the glooms away.
The Clown doctors are just one sector of an entire institution, which aims to change the world. Gesundheit has proven that social transformation can be incorporated into the medical practice, and humor can definitely be added on top of that. Patch Adams’ vision of humor and play as an integral part of emotional wellness and healing has been strengthened through the years. His ideas and dreams for the field of medical care have given hope to many, doctors and patients alike. One can say with certainty that he will keep spreading joy and laughter wherever he goes for as long as he can, helping to cure people while simply clowning around.