Patching up the ailing world

9/9/2013 2:23:05 PM

By Tanya Alexander

Dr. Patch Adams is an anomaly… he is a physician, a social change activist, a diplomat, a public speaker, a librarian and an author. “An ideas person,” he calls himself. But mostly, Patch Adams is proud to be a clown.

He has made it his life’s mission to spread joy, laughter and friendship throughout the world, believing that in giving, one receives far more and is sustained by it. He insists that he has never been sick a day in his adult life because he follows this path.

Hunter Doherty "Patch" Adams earned his Doctor of Medicine degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1971 and has been practicing medicine ever since – for free. He founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a non-profit organization that treats 500 to 1,000 patients a month and yet, accepts no recompense.  The institute was able to eliminate some 90 per cent of the costs of running a hospital, says Patch, in no small part due to the salary of doctors and surgeons… at only an astonishing low $300 a month! Still, the institute gets thousands of doctors’ applications from around the globe to come work there. Because, Patch says, “like me, they all ache for the world.”

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Who does this?” 

A war orphan at 16 (his father was in the US Army) and growing up in the southern US in the 1960s, Patch was profoundly affected by the injustices he saw all around him.

“It was the South in 1961… a pivotal time in history. Where I went to school, there were no blacks, only whites and it didn’t feel right to me,” he says.  “I realized my country was fake, my religion was fake… there was nothing I could believe in.”  

The civil rights horrors happening all around him shook him to the core and his military schooling only unsettled him further. By the time he was 18 years old, Patch had tried three times to kill himself and was living in a mental institution. Then he had an epiphany.
“I woke up one day and realized you don’t kill yourself, you make revolution!” he says with a fist to the sky. “You challenge society and you go against the grain, like Darwin… Einstein… Walt Whitman.”

He decided he would become a doctor and give medical care without taking a cent of payment. He also decided to be an instrument for peace and justice, and as a result, insists that he has been “uninterruptedly happy for 50 years.” He accepts no insurance (nor does he pay it), he visits the homes of those in need and always spends at least three or four hours with first-time patients. He dresses as a clown every day of his life, randomly acting goofy in elevators, parking lots and grocery stores.

Patch Adams is internationally known thanks to a 1998 Hollywood movie about his life’s work, starring Robin Williams. The fame doesn’t really matter to him personally but it helps him raise money now for the cause. For example, Angelina Jolie recently gave him a large sum to build a medical clinic in Kabul.

At nearly 68 years old, Patch has been giving free medical care for 43 years. He travels 300 days of the year to war-torn countries with his troupe of clowns to bring medical supplies, food and laughter. They stand by bedsides with their squeaky noses, multicoloured hair and gigantic bloomers doing everything in their power to make the sick feel better.

He gets thousands of letters and answers every single one. By hand, on paper.

He spoke recently in Doha, Qatar, at the 2013 Global Innovator’s Conference hosted by College of the North Atlantic-Qatar (CNA-Q). He had the rapt attention of the crowd as he talked about visiting impoverished and warn-torn countries in need of his services.
 “I have seen amazing grades of hell in my travels,” he tells us, “and I have stood by 10,000 death beds as a clown.”

He gets emotional at this. And also when he talks about the endless reserve of strength he has witnessed all around the world, particularly in women. Heroes, he calls them. Though he assures us that we can all be heroes. We can be one every day in little ways of doing an unexpected kindness or bringing a smile to a face.

It’s the children that hurt his heart the most, and those are the first wards he visits in hospitals. While in Doha, he took a group of volunteer high school students from the Qatar Canadian School to clown with him in the children’s ward at Hamad General Hospital.
Mr. Paul Mavin, Assistant Executive Director Business Development for Hamad, was there to witness the transformation of the patients.
“The reaction of the children Patch met and played with on our Pediatric Units was priceless. Their faces lit up and they smiled and laughed all the time he was with them.  I believe that this will be something they will never forget,” he said. “And it was beautiful to watch the moms react to the joy of the children. We hope to be able to build on this experience and encourage similar visits to our children’s unit in the future.”

Patch offered to come back and present workshops to medical staff on goofiness, insisting that laughter and caring heals.  

“There is no paper in history showing the benefits of being serious. There is no value in it!” says Patch. “Just love people. It is the call of all the faiths… to be loving. You are the embodiment of your faith when you are compassionate. And when you are a giver, you will be a receiver 10-fold.”

Mr. Dave Warren is a counsellor at CNA-Q. He had the opportunity to dress up as a clown and join the group at Hamad. He came to realize from watching Patch Adams that he lives his conviction.

“Clowning with him was an awesome experience. It did not matter who he met – be it a stern doctor or a child – he soon had them engaged and laughing,” said Mr. Warren. “It was amazing to see him transform from this outlandish, silly clown to a gentle and compassionate human being bringing a little comfort to a suffering patient or distressed parent. For me personally, by playing this clown character, I was able to bring a smile to others who needed it more than I. That was very rewarding.”

Unfortunately, says Patch, no medical school in the world teaches compassion.

“They don’t seem to realize that it’s not about technology, but that it’s about human connection and care,” he tells us. “I am working all over the world lobbying for medical schools to offer courses in compassion.”

Caring, he says, is as essential as water and oxygen.

He causes us to reflect upon ourselves and encourages us to recognize that we already are or can easily be caring heroes.
“Any of you out there who has done a kindness, say it with me: ‘I am a hero,’’’ yells Patch.

We say it, tentatively.

“Say it with conviction, now: ‘I AM A HERO!’” he shouts.

Then we shout it, our eyes shining with inspiration.

Let us all be heroes.