ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - February 2002


Issue Highlight — Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment
Can saying no be the first step to yes? Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment is the provocative subject of Peter Block's One From Column B in this issue.

The World of Patch Adams and Gesundheit!

Patch Adams is who/what? The subject of a hugely popular film. A film about a caring doctor who uses humor in his practice. A physician who has piloted and created a model for giving health care that is healthful for patients, family, physicians and nurses, and the community. “Got it, been there, feel good,” some might be tempted to say. “So what does Patch Adams have to do with the non-health care world of work and me?” 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. Adams is someone who through his lifelong focus on peace, justice, and care—an incessant searcher for the why of people and systems—has found that the “ills” in the health care system are a reflection of the ills of the society. Patch Adams will be speaking at the AQP’s Spring Conference in Las Vegas, March 11-13.

  So who is Patch Adams? What is he about? He is a whole person, bent on healing the whole society—the world—so that one day we would live in a world “where no one alive can remember what the word ‘war’ means.” His nudging, prodding, jibing, clowning, and challenging on many different fronts, along with building the model hospital, is about doing what it takes to assure that “whatever would have to change in the world to make that actually an easy thing and not what would be called an idealistic thing.”

   His words, energy, analysis, and clown antics whether applied to making health care healthy for physicians and nurses, or delivering joy, care, and sustenance to children in Russia, Cuba, Bosnia, or soon in Afghanistan, can, perhaps, make it easier for us to see the ills and possible cures of our own organizations and lives, as well as the impact we have on society. The challenge of his life to us is be aware, not close our eyes, and to take action if for no other reason than to avoid extinction of our “kind” within the next 50 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.

Note: As the time was short for this interview, we’ve also scanned and will include comments from other interviews and writings of Dr. Adams to give you a better view of his life, work, and challenge to each of us.

NFC: How would you describe what you are about for the person who has not read your book or seen the film?

If I had to use three words as opposed to a book, I would say “peace, justice, and care.” A world where no one alive can remember what the word “war” means, and whatever would have to change in the world to make that actually an easy thing and not what would be called an idealistic thing.

NFC: What is a first step someone might take to making war an unfamiliar word?

Patch: Well, one can certainly be peace and justice and care themselves. Which maybe is everyone’s first or one 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 certainly have lived that for almost four decades.

NFC: What describes who Patch Adams is and what drives you?

Patch: It’s not a philosophical tackling, my life. It’s a doing. 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 so far my life.

My life is one of social action. I want to be useful. I thought creating this [health care] model was a way that I could sustain myself and it would be thrilling to do. I wanted a lifetime kind of project that was my style. I needed a place to practice where it would be thrilling to be next to human suffering every day, all day long. Because if is not thrilling, it will eat me up (3).

The most essential question I asked myself in my whole life 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 this country 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 16 years, the patient that I’ve been involved with and making a house call on is the community and society (4).

It’s the job of the clown and the doctor to walk toward suffering and not be afraid to speak up. That’s why I opened with peace and justice and care. None of it’s worth anything. That’s why 20th century literature is about loneliness and meaninglessness. Because 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 meaning.

I answer all my mail. That’s about 600 longhand letters a month. I regularly correspond with about 1600 people. Huge numbers, as the only model in the U.S. you can imagine that I get thousands of letters from doctors and nurses saying such things as: “I saw you speak 10 years ago and I’ve been a free doctor two days a week ever since.” Imagine the repercussions of that. There are thousands of them.

“Just recently, an Italian film company raised more than $100,000 so that 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.”

NFC: 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 me or our work. There were dumb, stupid, meaningless things... made my children cry. They actually thought what they were reading about, they didn’t know the person they were reading about.

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 where they were hit by the worst hurricane in their history. The month before that, 30 clowns, ages 16-65, from seven countries went to Russia for the 17th year in a row. I am goofy. During those times I clown 10-16 hours a day uninterrupted. Blissfully. But it’s not the thing to say in an interview. The important thing in an interview is I’m speaking as a physician saying our species is going to be extinct if we don’t convert from a society that puts the emphasis on compassion and generosity that we now put on money and power.

We’re active in over 40 countries. There’s nothing in the media. 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 11 lectures in a day, I’m voracious in trying—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 say, autograph, and I give them a little lecture on pop culture and how it’s “dummified” our population and its consequences. 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 10 questions to ask yourself, 10 ideas to think about, 10 things to do to change the world, 10 Web sites to visit, magazines to subscribe to, and 10 books to read to introduce yourself as a political activist.

We define success in terms of Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Cindy Crawford, and Julia Roberts. And they’re not success. Success is 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 the intelligence 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?”

The road to the “public” Patch Adams (1). (The Gesundheit Institute started in 1971 with a 12-year pilot project using a communal home.)

Patch: “We wanted to build a hospital model addressing the problems of health care delivery. We thought we’d get funded because here we were, a bunch of doctors ready to work for free, and we just needed a building, and we could collect huge numbers of people to help. For 12 years we did the experiment and saw 15,000 people. We paid for it. We worked outside jobs...not a single donation. Fourteen hundred foundation rejections.

“I learned, I think, how to do it, and that it was right to be free and intimate, and without malpractice insurance, 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 15 years has been Gesundheit connecting up with the world. So I’ve spoken at most of the medical schools in this country—many of them many times. I’ve spoken at most all of the chiropractic schools, and naturopathic schools, acupuncture schools, osteopathic schools. They know me; we’re friends.”

Since the film, going global—“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, just huge numbers of projects. And volunteers come from all over the world to our place in West Virginia to be in an idealistic setting. In essence, we’re a little university of idealism. A lot of people just use us to keep dreaming, because they know we’re flaming idealists out here, still trying. And there aren’t many forces out there doing that.

“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 16 hours a day, go cheer up troubled people. That’s my job! 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 just peanuts.”


  1. by Douglas Eby.
  2. http://dharma––havens/patch–adams.htm .
  3. . Interview with Patch Adams by Caring People magazine, Spring 1993.
  4. . Interviewed by Ellen and Larry Becker.

Learn more?


February 2002 News for a Change Homepage

In This Issue...
The World of Patch Adams and Gesundheit!
Behind Pike Place Fish: A Conversation With Jim Bergquist
How We Use “Fish!” the Video

Teamwork at the Ground Zero Cleanup
Thriving Through Teamwork

Peter Block Column

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