An interview with Dr. Patch Adams
by Ned Hamson
Patch Adams is the subject of a hugely popular film about a caring doctor
who uses humor in his practice. A physician who has piloted and created a
model for giving healthcare that is healthful for patients, family, physicians, nurses and the community. "So what does Patch Adams have to do with my daily life?" If Patch Adams was just the movie character, the answer might be - not much. Patch Adams is not the movie, however - not by a long shot. Through his incessant search for the why of people and systems has found that the 'ills' in the healthcare system were a reflection of the ills of the society.
His words and journey, energy, analysis, caring methods, and 'clown
antics', whether applied to making healthcare healthy for physicians and
nurses, or delivering a bit of joy and care and sustenance to children in
Russia, Cuba, Bosnia, and soon in Afghanistan, can, perhaps, make it easier for each of us to see the 'ills' and possible 'cures' of our own
organizations and lives, as well as the impact we have on the whole society
and world. The challenge of his life to us is to be aware, not to close our
eyes; to take action if for no other reason than to avoid extinction of our
'kind' within the next fifty years. And, as one of his favorite funny
persons, Groucho Marx, might say: Don't forget to laugh and have fun; life
is too serious not to have fun with it.
Ned Hamson: How would you describe what you are about, to someone who has not read your book or seen the film?
Patch: If I had to use three words, I would say "peace, justice and care."
I want a world where no one alive can remember what the word 'war' means.
Ned: What is a first step someone might take to making war an unfamiliar
Patch: Well one can certainly be peace and justice and care themselves.
Which maybe is everyone's first step. A lot of people don't actually take
that step and they still do great things. But one can be full of peace and
justice and care about themselves. I've lived that for almost four decades.
Ned: What describes who Patch Adams is and what drives you?
Patch: I'm about doing. I'm a raging doer. I think inherent in the doing is
the energy for the doing. At least that's been my life so far.
My life is one of social action. I want to be useful. I thought by creating
this (healthcare) model I could sustain myself and it would be thrilling to
do. I needed a place to practice where it would be thrilling to be next to
human suffering every day, all day long. Because if it's not thrilling, it
will eat me up.
The most essential question I've asked myself was, "Can I look at injustice
and do nothing, or can I do something?" With that Gesundheit! was born, and whether it's clowning in Russia or Bosnia or Cuba, it comes out of a
concern that in the luxury of all of our lives-and in (the USA) even the
poor are living luxuriously compared to the rest of the world-we all still
have to take the time to do the right thing. For the last sixteen years,
the patient that I've been involved with and making a house call on is the
community and society.
It's the job of the clown and the doctor to walk towards suffering and not
be afraid to speak up. As soon as you stop being part of peace and justice
and care, you're going to be lonely and your life isn't going to have
You're not going to feel like your life has meaning unless you're giving.
There you have it. Everyone makes choices. I try to lead by example. To
say, look, I'm just doing my version. Everyone has to find their own
version of loving. If you want meaning and you don't want to be lonely, be
loving. Be your style and you might end up in a motorcycle gang, or you
might end up in a nunnery, or you might end up in an extended family. Who
knows; it doesn't matter. But at least within your tribe, think peace and
justice and care. If you want to prevent extinction then you have to think
it for everybody.
I answer all my mail. That's about 600 longhand letters a month. I get
thousands of letters from doctors and nurses saying such things as: "I saw
you speak ten years ago and I've been a free doctor 2 days a week ever
since." Imagine the repercussions of that.
Just recently, an Italian film company raised over $100,000 so I could take
22 clowns from all continents to Afghanistan. They originally just said I
would get clowns from here, but I said, No let's get them from every
continent. Then the question is how many tons of aid can we bring. I told
them I can't clown unless we're feeding people if they're hungry.
Ned: I would have thought that the film would have made building the
hospital easier and that news of your going to Russia, Bosnia, or
Afghanistan would be a part of the news of the day. Has the media been a
help or a hindrance?
Patch: We put up fake, meaningless heroes to completely divert intelligence from our population. So, our kind of work, if anything, is denigrated... After the movie, there wasn't a single positive article about our work or me. There were dumb, stupid, meaningless things... it made my children cry. They actually thought that they didn't know the person they were reading
I knew the movie would do this. I would become a funny doctor. Imagine how shallow that is relative to who I am. I just got back from taking 17 clowns to Cuba, which was hit by the worst hurricane in their history. The month before that, we took 30 clowns from 7 countries, ages 16-65, to Russia for the 17th year in a row. I am goofy. During those times, I clown 10-16 hours a day uninterruptedly. Blissfully. But it's not the thing to say in an interview. The important thing in an interview is for a physician to say:
look, I'm speaking as a physician saying our species is going to be extinct
if we don't convert to a society that puts the emphasis on compassion and
generosity that we now put on money and power.
We're active in over forty countries. You just can't imagine what we're
doing. The media says nothing. Read Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy and you'll be in the streets as a revolutionary.
I'm on the road 300 days a year. As many as eleven lectures in a day...
universities, medical schools, commencement addresses. I give sometimes
two- or three-hour question and answer periods. When it's in the newspaper it's "Oh, Patch Adams, the real Patch Adams, played by Robin Williams in the movie."
I keep a list of 50 books in my wallet as my card, so that when someone
comes up and asks me for an autograph I give them a little lecture on pop
culture and how it's dummified our population, and its consequences. Or
that sixty percent of schoolteachers need second jobs to support their
families, where ball bouncers are multi-millionaires. And I say that I'm
not going to buy into that. So, I've never given an autograph. I give them
that little lecture and then out of my wallet I take my card which has ten
questions to ask yourself, ten ideas to think about, ten things to do to
change the world, ten websites to visit, magazines to subscribe to, and ten
books to read to introduce yourself as a political activist.
We define success in terms of Michael Jordan and Bill Gates and Cindy
Crawford and Julia Roberts. And they're not the success. Success is the
schoolteachers trying to teach math and English in a society that's more
interested in spouting clichés. 54 million people are watching a fake
survivor show without understanding that their own survival is at stake.
You now know that in talking with me what I am about is ending the love of money and power. I want the number one show in the country if anyone's slow enough to watch TV then, to be "Who Wants to Be a Good Friend?"
Ned: Tell us something about the hospital project.
Patch: We wanted to build a hospital model addressing the problems of
healthcare delivery. We thought we'd get funded because here we were, a
bunch of doctors ready to work for free; we just needed a building, and we could collect huge numbers of people to help. For twelve years we did the experiment and saw fifteen thousand people. We paid for it. We worked outside jobs.... not a single donation. Fourteen hundred foundation
I learned that it was right to be free and intimate, and without
malpractice insurance and without third-party reimbursement, and using a
mix of all the healing arts. All those things proved to be correct. So, we
realized since we got no donation, that we were going to have to go public
and play the fame and fortune game, until we bumped into money the last
fifteen years has been Gesundheit connecting with the world. So, I've
spoken at most of the medical schools in this country. I've spoken at most
all of the chiropractic schools, and naturopathic schools, acupuncture
schools, osteopathic schools. They know me; we're friends."
People are interested in hearing something about celebration of life, the
joy of service. Gesundheit is also connected to environmental groups all
over the world. Volunteers come from all over the world to our place in
West Virginia to be in an idealistic setting. People know we're flaming
idealists out here, still trying. And there aren't many forces out there
The fact is, I can't believe my life. I get to go as a clown to Bosnia,
where it's my job to clown sixteen hours a day, go cheer troubled people
up. Now, that's not what I set out to do, in 1971. I set out to build a
hospital, and that's the most important project. These other things are
|The Gesundheit! Institute as an organization, community, and activity:
(From the Institute's web site: http://www.patchadams.org)
We want to bring fun, friendship and the joy of service back into
healthcare. We are working to replace greed and competition with
generosity, compassion and interdependence. Because they're healthy and fun, we want to nurture the growth of grassroots, neighborly mutual support and personal activism.
The Hospital is a stimulant to broaden the dialogue on healthcare delivery, we want to build a hospital/healing community where:
* All the healing arts will be welcome.
* All patients will be treated as friends.
* There will be no charge for health services.
* The healthcare experience will be infused with fun.
* No malpractice insurance will be carried by the Institute.
* The health of the staff will be valued equally with the health of the
Is it built yet? We have established the Gesundheit! Hospital Foundation, and are ready to take the next leap when big money arrives.
The good news is we don't have to wait for a hospital. This new culture is growing today, in the good works of a worldwide network of people drawing inspiration and support from our common vision. You are probably one of them. You're helping to build Gesundheit!'s foundation with creative personal activism, our most accessible tool for change.
1. http://members.aol.com/douglaseby/padams.html by Douglas Eby
3 http://iaig.ca/patchadamsbc/documents/interviewpa.html Interview with
Patch Adams by Caring People Magazine, Spring 1993
4. http://www.empireone.net/~freeschool/patch.html Interviewed by Ellen and Larry Becker
Ned Hamson of the Élan Institute is an independent writer, consultant and editor. He is the former editor of the Journal for Quality and
Participation (USA). He is also the lead or co-author of three books,