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Patch Adams: On a Quest to Heal the World

Mitchell Clute

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Patch Adams: On a Quest to Heal the World

Patch Adams, Natural Products Expo East's keynote speaker, doesn't clown around when it comes to changing the world. As a young doctor, he found himself disillusioned with the medical establishment's approach to healing, so he set out to set things aright by bringing laughter and friendship into the doctor-patient relationship For the past 30 years, he's worked tirelessly to change the way our society deals with illness.

Along the way, he's written two books: House Calls (Robert D. Reed Publishers, 1998), a guide for visiting with hospital patients, and Gesundheit! (Healing Arts Press, 1993), an autobiography that served as the basis for the movie Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.

But if all you know about Patch Adams comes from the 1998 movie, you don't have the whole story. "I am a goofy doctor with squeaky shoes, but that's not the cornerstone of who I am," Adams says. "I approach things first as a political activist, working for peace and justice and the care of our planet."

That activism has focused first and foremost on working to change some of the basic assumptions behind the health-care system. Asked what's wrong with the medical establishment's approach to healing, Adams says, "Everything. It's become a greedy, arrogant business heavy on technology and absent of compassion. Our value system is money- and power-driven, and there's no place for that in medicine."

His answer to this system is the Gesundheit Institute, an unusual hospital being built in West Virginia. "I'm about looking at the problems with the way care is delivered and finding solutions," Adams says. "I started a hospital that doesn't charge money, that doesn't carry malpractice [insurance], where every patient is treated as a friend. To me, friendship is the best medicine."

The Gesundheit Institute also welcomes healers working in alternative medicine, and empowers people to take charge of their own health. "The call to take care of yourself, that's as old as medicine," Adams says.

Though Adams supports holistic approaches to healing, he believes the natural products industry falls prey to the same problems that beset any other industry in our profit-driven economy. "Like most businesses, the bottom line still influences their advertising and the way they practice business," Adams says. "Most products are overpriced. A huge number of businesses are looking to make money in health care rather than to create a healthy world."

Adams sees the dehumanization of modern medicine in the context of a much bigger problem. He believes the environmental and social problems the world faces threaten our very existence as a species and demand activism as a response. "Are you concerned about our extinction?" he asks. "Relative to that possibility, diet and exercise are puny. Right now there are one billion people without access to water, and if no one puts the transnational corporations in check, soon all the earth's water will be owned privately.

"I don't want to hide behind diet, exercise and meditation," he says. "Cute little things like that aren't important on a sinking ship. On the Titanic, no one was saying, 'Finish your vegetables.' And we're on the Titanic, only there are no lifeboats. We are in great peril."

That's why Adams emphasizes the need for social justice in our violent world. "It's natural to want peace," he says. But achieving the kind of peace that can really make a difference in solving the world's intractable problems will require a drastic shift, to relationships based on love and respect instead of money and power, Adams says.

If enough people get involved, he believes, the world can be changed. But it starts with each person figuring out how to ask the right questions and see the whole problem. "Get involved in democracy," Adams says. "Study to get to the root causes of things. Devote a lot of your money and your time. Love everybody.

"Right now we need to be activists for peace and justice and caring. We need to insist on a healthy environment, and never allow such a stupid, dangerous president to get into office again, one who represents the transnational corporations instead of the people. We shouldn't rest until the 11 million Americans who go to bed hungry are fed, until a school teacher makes more money than a bar bouncer."

Adams himself is constantly on the go, working to put his ideals into action. In addition to fund-raising efforts for building the Gesundheit Institute hospital, Adams travels the world, bringing his humor, his passion and, yes, his clown suit, to people who need to hear his message. He works not only with health care professionals and corporate managers, but also with war orphans and refugees around the globe. Journal entries on his Web site,, describe his recent visits to Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, Peru, Zambia, and Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Now, he's bringing his traveling show to Natural Products Expo East, where his keynote lecture is sure to entertain—even if he doesn't wear the red rubber nose.

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 8/p. 16, 18.

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