Keeping Patients in Stitches



To: The Boss
From: Bruce Goldfarb
Re: Gesundheit Institute

I went to cover the Wholistic Medical Association meeting the other day as you asked. It turned out to be nothing at all like we expected.

First of all, I showed up a little late. When I dashed into the medical school classroom, I was confronted by a tall fellow with a huge handlebar moustache curling beneath twinkling eyes, his long hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked like an escapee from Ringling Brothers, with his lab coat splattered with bright paints, wearing a big goofy hat, billowing red trousers and black shoes the size of small pontoons.

This was the guest speaker, Dr. Patch Adams, founder of the Gesundheit Institute in Virginia. Adams is practically the crowned prince of medical comedy. He is a family practitioner who accepts no fees, has no malpractice insurance, and has patients move in with his family.

That’s not the strangest thing. At the WMA meeting, he wore a rubber duck bill over his nose.

Maybe that’s not the strangest thing. Everybody else in the room, an audience of a couple dozen people (including several children), wore colossal rubber noses too. The noses were handouts for what Adams said was his workshop on “Introductory Goofballing,” a review of the skills of being a nut.

Despite vague misgivings, I took my rubber nose — a classy obese number covered with warts — and found a seat in the back of the room.

First Adams loosened everybody up with a rousing chorus of the song Ed Wynn sang in Mary Poppins: “I love to laugh HA HA HA HA….I love to sing HEE HEE HEE HEE….”

Then he got down to his lesson plan and brought out the audiovisuals — clips from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, a bit of contemporary Pee Wee Herman, and finishing with Monty Python’s “Ministry of Funny Walks” routine.

What does all this have to do with medicine? That’s what I asked.

Adams is a doctor of the Norman Cousins “humor therapy” school of medical care. He tends to shy away from invasive, high-tech pharmacological approaches in favor of tending to the soul with kindness and hope, facilitating the body’s ability to heal. You might remember that Cousins survived a nearly fatal bout of illness with liberal doses of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and the like, after doctors had given up hope. Cousins says that laughter massages the insides. It’s all in his book, Anatomy of an Illness.

There is no medicine for suffering, Adams said. Laughter is a “pain reliever that doesn’t cause addiction” by tapping into the body’s reservoir of endorphin, the natural opiates.

“We seem to crave humor as if it were an essential amino acid,” he said. In a child, humor can be used diagnostically to detect “adult-erization” — growing up before one’s time. Used properly, laughter can be the treatment of choice to defuse sensitive situations and to draw people out from the barriers they erect around themselves.

And also, for the most seriously sick, often all one can do is offer friendship and compassion.

“The whole idea is that we’re in it together. We all need each other,” he said. “If we were all one big happy family, our health would be different.”

The Gesundheit Institute has had more than 15,000 patients in the past 15 years, and is now beginning to construct its own independent inpatient facility. When he isn’t treating patients, Adams travels the world spreading his messages.

Does it work? I don’t know. It isn’t “St. Elsewhere.” Was the workshop worthwhile? Listen: when Adams was through the room was steaming with laughter. Faces were flushed all around. People were still smiling and chuckling. Adams assured everybody that he would be a friend for life, and gave us his address and phone number. Anybody is welcome to come visit Gesundheit anytime.

And lastly, a young medical student suggested a communal hug before everybody left. The group fell together into a wiggling giggling mass in the middle of the room. I think they got their money’s worth.

The Voice, 1986

2 Responses to “Keeping Patients in Stitches”

  1. Craig says:

    I think I went to the same High School as Patch. Goofballing might be infectious, as I think I got a case from a toilet seat there. At least I hope so. Goofballing can be very dangerous, though. If you do it about serious subjects, people take you to the nearest “Behavioral Facility,” like St. Elizabeth’s Lunatic Asylum, which is close to our school. You’re kept if you keep on trying to laugh your way out, no matter how Adamant you are.

Leave a Reply