Mother Earth Living

For Patch Adams, Good Health is a Laughing Matter

America’s most famous medical-doctor clown is a funny guy with a serious prescription for transforming our health — individually, as a nation and as cohabitants of our planet. For those interested in holistic approaches to health and healing, Dr. Patch Adams’ message is particularly resonant.

A few simple, sensible ideas provide the bedrock of Dr. Patch Adams’ philosophy, and they offer possibilities worth considering for anyone interested in health: Take responsibility for your own health. Be related to other human beings as members of the same community. Employ any healing technique that works. Give people the gifts of compassion, listening and time. And while you’re at it, have some fun, why don’t you?

He’s not the Patch Adams you’d recognize from Robin Williams’ melodramatic portrayal in the movie that bears his name. For one thing, he’s a foot taller and serene, with eyes that alternately sparkle with mischief or become pools of lamentation as he reflects on the suffering that is both his grief and his life’s mission. For another, he’s not just a goofy guy in a clown nose tweaking the beard of hospital administrators who try to rein him in. A rabble-rouser and social activist, Adams has devoted 33 years to challenging the health-care system in the United States — a nation where millions of physically sound, well-fed people are miserable in mind and spirit, and where even more millions suffer from self-inflicted diseases he believes could be healed by the medicine of meaning.

A Life of Meaning

In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that what is authentic and genuine in humans is our desire for a life full of meaning. When our lives suffer from a deficit of meaning, the vacuum creates much emotional and physical mischief. The doctor’s task, Frankl says, isn’t to bury the symptoms under a mountain of medication, but to pilot the patient through the crisis and assist him in remaining on the path to his own growth and development. Adams’ clowning is a means to this end. His goofy antics serve as psychic dynamite, employed to disintegrate the granite of our inhibitions, which keep us from connecting with ourselves and with each other.

“When you ask people what they like about life,” Adams says, “they talk about the fun they have, whether it’s racing cars, working in the garden, dancing or writing books. People crave laughter as if it were an essential amino acid. But humor is often denied in the adult world. In the business, religious, medical and academic worlds, the stress is on seriousness and significance, as though humor is inappropriate. Human beings connect through humor, and deep connection creates health.

“What the majority of people need,” he says, “is engagement with life. Over my career, I have spoken with thousands of people, and this is what people want: They want fabulous listening, sweet compassion and a sense that they matter to you.”

Good Goofiness

Granted, Adams’ level of goofiness is unattainable for most of us and may be undesirable for many. For example, his suggestion to have a barf-along with your favorite bulimic might not sit well with some, but the spirit animating the suggestion rings true: Be with people on their journey; practice radical tenderness; stop resisting each other and start embracing. Even when problems are serious, we are better served with levity than with heavy significance — the powerful medicine of doofus love.

Adams says reactions of people who are confronted with this towering, gray-haired man in a red nose and balloon pants — doing stuff their mom would have smacked them for — tell him people are grateful for the comic relief. He spends much of his time traveling, lecturing, and sharing with medical schools and professional organizations his passionate philosophy that injecting humor, intimacy and human connection can make the therapeutic relationship healing for both practitioner and patient. Along the way, he’s been rattling the chains that bind us to what he believes is an unworkable medical system that grinds down those charged with implementing it, and an elitist approach to health-care reimbursement that is just plain wrong.

Regardless of one’s political orientation, Adams’ analysis of what’s ailing us invites a deeper look — at our personal choices, at our cultural character, and at the systems that keep in place illness and despair, which Adams believes are as related to each other as the front and back of our hands.

A Drastically Different Approach

To some, Adams’ antidote may sound unconventional or hopelessly utopian: a health-care system where laughter, joy and creativity are integral to the healing process, where all health practices are equal and where the cared-for as well as the caregiver form the medical community. It’s the kind of do-what-works medicine Adams and a handful of colleagues practiced for 12 years in a pilot project that has morphed into the Gesundheit! Institute, an organization dedicated to addressing the “spiraling costs, dispirited caregivers and alienated patients” in the U.S. health-care system.

The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute was created to provide for the realization of a dream Adams and his cohorts had when they first began practicing medicine in the 1970s — a holistic hospital and health-care community where care is provided without cost and doctors carry no malpractice insurance. The Institute has never accepted third-party reimbursement and never will, Adams says. Doctors and patients relate to each other on the basis of mutual trust, and patients receive the gift of time and listening from their physicians. Initial interviews with patients are three or four hours long — an unimaginable luxury in a world where most of us spend a harried 15 minutes trying to explain our symptoms to a doctor who is conscious every minute of the ticking of the clock.

The refusal to carry malpractice insurance is part of what Adams calls the “politics of vulnerability.”

“Malpractice lawsuits reflect the breakdown in the relationship between the patient and the doctor,” he says. “Medicine is imperfect, and sometimes mistakes happen. But studies have shown that the least-sued doctors are those who are closest with their patients. In a community that feels like family, one doesn’t punish a physician’s honest mistakes.”

The Gesundheit! Institute has broken ground for a healing facility on its 317-acre West Virginia property. The intention is that the facility serve as a model to stimulate the medical community to examine viable alternatives to the current system. It will be a 40-bed community hospital, with 60 beds for the hospital staff and their families. A cornerstone of this model, Adams says, is that all medical approaches will be welcome — as long as they don’t charge for the service. Herbalists and specialists in acupuncture, massage, Reiki and nutrition will work alongside medical doctors to discern the most effective approach for each individual patient.

“To provide a context that will promote wellness, we fully integrate medicine with crafts, performing arts, agriculture, nature, education, recreation and social service,” Adams says. “We don’t think depressed and anxious people need prescription antidepressants; they need to find their own love of life.

“This (approach) makes some medical doctors very nervous,” he says. “In 1971, when we founded our first hospital, we were the first hospital in the country to incorporate these things. We believe that all healing methods are valid and that massage and acupuncture and herbs and whatever else works are completely equal with the work of the physicians in their importance to the patient. It isn’t about the doctor — it’s about the patient. The first law for doctors is to serve the patient first. Within that framework, why shouldn’t we be willing to share the stage with whatever works? The reason there aren’t other hospitals that incorporate all these complementary therapies is that they’re chicken doo-doo, afraid to make the doctors mad, afraid to alienate the medical establishment.

“Our radical approach does make it very difficult to get funding,” he says. The project remains a work in progress, and Adams’ lectures and public appearances provide most of the financial nourishment for its growth.

A Quest for New Leadership

For much of the past year, Adams has been on the road campaigning for U.S. presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, a candidate whose value system, he says, most closely mirrors his own. Adams’ passion for individual health is indivisible from his belief in the necessity of public policy that supports the web of life and creates a peaceful world in which human beings can relax with each other and enjoy the fruits of community.

“Everything in medicine is secondary to getting leadership in the world that makes the health of the planet its priority,” he says. “We aren’t like the cockroaches and ants and rats — we don’t produce a million babies a year to replace ourselves when conditions get too harsh for survival. We have to have leadership throughout this world that realizes that solving our problems can’t be done through guns and murder and violence and exploitation.

“If we don’t have that kind of leadership and those priorities, none of the healing modalities, none of the diets or techniques or practices we concern ourselves with will make a bit of difference,” he says. “We have to stop dealing in death and destruction and start creating political and social structures that are healthy for the earth and all that inhabit it, or we’re all sunk.”

It’s a tall order, and a perfect challenge for one who seeks a life overflowing with purpose and meaning. The quest for a healthy, peaceful world has taken Adams to prisons, orphanages and nursing homes, as well as on extended journeys to war-ravaged parts of the world where economies and infrastructures are practically nonexistent. On these trips, he takes tons of food, stacks of clothing and a goofy troupe of clowns causing spontaneous eruptions of healing giggles in some of the most miserable spots on Earth.

Kathryn Compton is editor in chief of Herbs for Health.

  • Published on May 1, 2003
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