The joy doctor

Patch Adams shares his inspiring medical philosophy during a Chico house call

Helping others is the best medicine for Patch Adams.

Helping others is the best medicine for Patch Adams.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

Happy place:
For information on the Gesundheit Institute, including how to make a donation to the cause, visit

Of the more than 100,000 letters Dr. Patch Adams has received over the years, the one he feels showed the power of caring most was from Jessie, a 12-year-old girl dying at home because her family could not afford a liver transplant. The family handyman, “Mr. Pete,” became her caretaker and best friend when her single mother was working or needed a break.

“Because you are receiving this, it means I have died, but that’s OK,” Jessie wrote. “You should be friends with Mr. Pete—he is my angel and makes me laugh till I cry. Be happy for me.”

This was just one of the many heart-wrenching stories Adams shared with the audience Saturday (June 25) at the Neighborhood Church in Chico. Adams, known around the world for his passion for offering patients—and their caregivers—free health care, was brought to town by Passages Adult Resource Center.

Caring for patients as well as their caregivers at no cost is something practiced not just by real-life heroes like Adams, who was the subject of the 1998 movie bearing his name and starring Robin Williams, but also by local care groups such as the Shalom Free Clinic and Mountain Caregivers Resource Center.

So when MCRC’s director, Susanne Rossi, considered which speaker to bring to her program’s annual, end-of-June fundraiser, she chose Adams himself.

“We liked his philosophy of free, compassionate medical care since we provide relief, free of charge, to caregivers of brain-impaired adults who need time off or just emotional support,” said Rossi, whose program, a service of Passages, serves 10 counties and is funded by the California Department of Mental Health.

Adams gave a rousing, three-hour performance on “The Joy of Caring” to several hundred gathered at the spacious, gold-domed church.

From the start, the attendees knew they were in for a comical performance. Red clown noses were handed out at the door with instructions on when to wear them in order to surprise Adams. One woman handing out the noses, Betty Peters, had her face painted as a clown.

“I’ve performed as a clown all my life, and there are only two people I’ve wanted to hug: Mother Teresa and Patch Adams,” Peters said after the talk. “I didn’t get to hug Mother Teresa, but today my dream came true when I hugged Patch.”

On a prearranged cue, as Adams was introduced, nearly everyone put on their noses and shouted, “We love you, Patch!”

Adams, seated in the crowd, sprinted to the stage and, during the thunderous applause joked, “You’re shouting already? Get a life!”

The 66-year-old doctor presented a comical figure—his 6-foot-4 frame draped in an oversized, untucked shirt, saggy, multicolored, parachute-like pants and tennis shoes. He sported a handlebar mustache, and his hair (half of it colored blue) was tied in a long pony tail hanging down to his waist.

On a somber note, Adams explained that in the early 1960s he was beaten up every day during his last two years of high school because of his outspoken opposition to open racism and other social injustices. His massive disillusionment with the world led him to attempt suicide three times, resulting in extended confinement in a locked mental asylum. It was during this time that he made an oath to help all those in need medically or psychologically and to live ecstatically from then on.

Adams went on to graduate from medical school and began his dream in 1971 using a large house in West Virginia, calling it the Gesundheit Institute, staffed by 20 volunteers, including three doctors. Anyone in need was allowed to be seen and to stay as long as desired.

“In addition to standard medical treatment, we practiced alternative methods, such as energy balancing, acupuncture and faith healing, many of which were illegal in West Virginia,” he said.

The clinic also employed comedy, performance art and “clowning.”

“We were the first silly hospital in history,” he said.

Staffers essentially tricked people into exercising with activities such as wild, all-night rock ’n’ roll dances. They treated 500 to 1,000 people per month, with five to 50 sleeping there nightly, and never charged a penny.

Most of the staff members worked second jobs for the pleasure of practicing medicine free of charge. Adams gave several reasons why caring and compassion bring joy. They are acts that make for true heroes and were central messages of Jesus and the Buddha, he said. Caring also gives a sense of enthusiasm and fulfillment.

“I’ve never taken a single day to myself in my entire adult life,” Adams proclaimed. “Yet each day of helping others is really a pleasure for myself.”

Adams thinks the U.S. health-care system is in shambles. He noted its profit-driven nature and a lack of emphasis on compassion or preventative health care in medical schools.

After closing down in 1983 due to lack of financial support, Adams vowed to build a new, larger Gesundheit Institute compound. Using donations, he purchased a 321-acre property with waterfalls and a lake in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Buildings planned there include a 40-bed hospital, clinic and teaching center and construction work is halfway done. They will be run using Adams’ original, free, compassionate-care model.

Adams said he tours the world 300 days a year, both to raise funds for the institute and to take staffers and volunteer medical students on compassionate clowning trips to help the sick and dying. He showed several touching video clips of his ministering sessions, such as a cancer patient in Cuba surrounded by family, only a few days from death. Adams managed to elicit laughter, loud singing, clapping and tears of joy from the woman.

“I’ve clowned at over 10,000 death beds, never just to get a smile but to engage the patient,” he said.

Adams’ work is paralleled in a small, local way by the aforementioned Shalom Free Clinic, which gives free medical and mental health treatment to all comers each Sunday at its 1190 E. First Ave. location inside the Congregational Church of Chico.

“His philosophy is ours,” said Shalom’s director, Nancy Morgans-Ferguson. “We also believe you can’t separate the health of the individual from the family, community and the world.”

Today, plans for the institute continue, and Adams said he is advising writers of a sequel to the film about his life’s work. Though not religious, he said that all major faiths teach love and compassion. He said people should follow the advice from the big-screen comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to each other.”