The first time I saw him he was wearing a rubber nose, a multi-coloured print shirt, and a polka-dot tie over yellow balloon pants held up by suspenders. Beneath the rubber nose was an elaborate handlebar moustache; on the back of his head, a ponytail that reached to his waste. He stood before an audience of Maryland hospital administrators who snickered at first, then smiled, then fell silent, and ended up thunderously applauding and inviting him to their regional conference.
Meet Hunter D. ‘Patch’ Adams, M.D., a social revolutionary and one-man show, who believes in ‘horse and buggy’ medicine and never charges a patient a cent! Patch has become a celebrity in medical circles because his ideals – and his plans for transforming them into reality – kindle the hope of rediscovering the joy in practicing medicine, for health care professionals and patients alike.
Patch and a few colleagues founded the The Gesundheit Institute in Northern Virginia in 1972. Their ideal is to build a hospital on the premises, but that is still a dream. They have, however, treated thousands of people without bills or other compensation, malpractice insurance, and other ‘necessities’ of modern medicine. Patch believes that healing should be a loving, creative, humorous human interchange, not a business transaction. Today’s high-tech medicine has become too costly (thus he doesn’t charge or use third-party insurance), dehumanised (he spends up to four hours taking each patient’s initial history), mistrustful (he refuses to carry malpractice insurance), and grim (‘Good health’ he says, ‘is a laughing matter.’). Imagine forever ending the refrain, ‘I hate going to the hospital (or the doctor),’ and replacing it with ‘I had a great time in the hospital!’
Patch Adams: ‘Wearing a rubber nose wherever I go has changed my life. Dullness and boredom melt away. Wearing underwear on the outside of your clothes can turn a tedious trip to the store for a forgotten carton of milk into an amusement park romp. Humour is the antidote to all ills. People crave laughter as if it were an essential amino acid. I believe that fun is as important as love. Research has shown that laughter increases the secretion of the natural chemicals catecholamines and endorphins that make people feel so peppy and good. It also decreases cortisol secretion and lowers the sedimentation rate, which implies a stimulated immune response. Oxygenation of the blood increases, and residual air in the lungs decreases. Heart rate initially speeds up and blood pressure rises; then the arteries relax, causing heart rate and blood pressure to lower. Skin temperatures rises as a result of increased peripheral circulation. In addition laughter has superb muscle relaxant qualities. Muscle physiologists have shown that anxiety and muscle relaxation cannot occur at the same time and that the relaxation response after a hearty laugh can last up to 45 minutes.’
Friendship is also a cornerstone in Adams approach towards healing: ‘For the health of the patient, the staff, and the medical profession itself, patients and staff must strive toward friendship in the deepest sense of the word. Friendship is a great medicine. In friendship there are no taboo subjects, and information is not withheld. Patients can take comfort in knowing that a friend is in charge of the case. This atmosphere in itself is healing. Physicians need freedom to cry with patients, to hug them and cradle them in their arms, and to receive the same care in return. Human communication without this exchange of love is phoney. It is painful to be fake. Some studies have shown that the doctor’s mere presence can exert a positive impact on the patient’s health. The deeper the friendship, the more profound the effect. I know how devastating loneliness can be. Friendship is the best medicine ever discovered! It is the most secure form of health insurance.’