May 2, 2014
Patch Adams visits patients in Fauquier Hospital's Emergency Department.
Infusion Center patients at Fauquier Hospital are delighted to meet Patch.
Fauquier Hospital employees, patients and volunteers rubbed elbows with celebrity on Monday and it was a memorable experience for all involved. Patch Adams -- the physician, patient advocate, and clown who was the subject of the 1998 Robin Williams movie by the same name -- careened into town Monday morning. Eccentric, radical, passionate, and most of all, caring, he created a bit of a sensation in our quiet community.
Patch (He prefers to be called Patch rather than Dr. Adams) touched down first at the Fauquier Springs Club, in time to speak to attendees at Fauquier Health’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Brunch. Fauquier Health honors its more than 300 volunteers each year with a festive gathering. It was an appropriate audience for Patch’s message – health system volunteers embody the patient-centered care that Patch says is so crucial to healing.
Patch, 69, was speaking to his contemporaries here, and he got knowing smiles and nods when he confessed that he doesn’t use a computer or iPhone, and answers all his mail – 400-600 letters a month – longhand. He spoke of the power of person-to-person contact, of listening, of understanding and celebrating the differences among us.
Like many of the volunteers, he has seen tragedy and injustice, though on a much larger scale than most people have had to confront. He has traveled the world to cheer the sick and injured. With his clowning troupe, he has ventured into refugee camps, into the poorest parts of Cuba, South America and the Soviet Union. He said, “I have held perhaps 2,000 children in my arms as they died of starvation … I have prayed at 3,000 sickbeds…. We have clowned on the streets, in subway stations, in hospitals. No one is safe.”
He and his companions visit patients armed with red rubber noses, hats that look like nesting chickens, funny pants and oversized clown shoes. They sing, dance, tell jokes and engage in deliberate silliness, meant to break down barriers and coax laughter from pain. And they listen.
During the hour and a half Patch spoke to the volunteer group, he railed against a health care system that often fails the poor, and focuses on prescribing pills instead of getting to know patients. As a doctor, he says that he takes four hours for an initial consultation, visits the patient’s home and plays with their children. He never charges for his services.
As anyone who has seen the Patch Adams movie knows, Patch is not a fan of medical schools or of the U.S. health system. He believes that more can be accomplished through love and friendship than through prescriptions. “Wellness, health, love, these are words that are not mentioned in medical school.”
He is particularly scornful of psychiatric medications, and says that mental illnesses are merely labels. He believes that mental illness is an individual’s reaction to society’s failures. He says depression is a by-product of loneliness and ADHD is a result of bad schools. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is not a mental illness; it’s a reasonable reaction to the horrors of war. Controversial statements, to be sure, and offensive to some, certainly. Perhaps his audiences forgive his eccentricities because Patch doesn’t just rail against the establishment, he tries very hard to make a better world – one person at a time.
How does he find the will, the energy, to continue pushing for his dream? He said that he wakes up every day and decides to be gloriously happy.
Dressed in his trademark red flowered clown pants and sporting a wispy ponytail down his back – half silver and half bright blue -- Patch told the volunteers about a hospital he operated in Arlington, Va. for 12 years. All of the doctors and their families lived at the hospital, everyone was welcome and all care was free. He has described the experience this way: “We lived in a six-bedroom house and called it a hospital. We had 20 adults and their children -- that included two family doctors and one psychiatrist. We saw 50 to 100 patients each month and had 5-50 overnight guests. You could come with or without an appointment and the only label we gave to people was ‘eccentric.’ We were an artist’s colony that celebrated art, nature, education; we practiced yoga and massage and held all-night dance parties to trick people into doing aerobics. We were never sued, we made millions of mistakes, and we never gave up. For 12 years, we had a house filled with anger, neediness, illness, loneliness. I loved every second.”
It was decided that after 12 years, the project needed a proper facility, so the house closed and work began on opening a proper hospital. Land has been secured in West Virginia and fundraising continues. “We are 0 for 1,400 on foundation grants, so far,” says Patch, but the effort goes on.
The Main Event
Within a couple of hours of saying goodbye to the volunteers, Patch was in Fauquier Hospital’s Emergency Department, visiting patients and spreading his own brand of joy. Patch owns what he called the world’s largest pair of underpants. Six or more members of the ED staff – including ED physician Dr. Jeff Joseph and several nurses – gleefully climbed in to the absurd garment and visited patients along with Patch. Patients were universally delighted to meet the famous Patch Adams. He joked about enemas, he held their hands and he posed for selfies with patients and staff.
The group – which included a half dozen hospital staffers dressed in clown gear and giving out paper flowers – was whisked off to the Infusion Center next, where Patch visited one-on-one with the three patients there. “What can I and my rubber fish do for you?” he asked each. With one patient, he traded his chicken hat for her more subdued gray one. “Can you tell us apart now?” he wondered out loud.
For one patient, who donned a red nose for the occasion, Patch sang a country song in a deep voice while the rest of the room fell silent, listening. By the time he left the Infusion Center, everyone seemed to be properly cheered.
For his last stop of the night, Patch spoke for two hours to a gathering of hospital staff. The evening was a gift to Fauquier Hospital nurses in honor of Nurses Week. He spoke about compassion burnout, an appropriate topic for the audience of healthcare workers who give so much every day to the sick and injured. He said, “It’s sad that a person doing love work, caring work, can get burned out.”
He elaborated on seven reasons why he will never burn out. Among them:
PPatch Adams knows that there are many ways to change the world. He chooses to connect through humor, caring and love. “I have clowned every day for 50 years. I have 30 toys on me right now. I can be dangerous.”