Brownstein Patch Adams delivers healthy dose of humour

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Hunter Doherty Adams — the world knows him better by his nickname Patch — doesn’t believe laughter is the best medicine. This comes as somewhat of a shock from a physician, clown and activist who founded the Gesundheit! Institute and who sports shoulder-length blue hair and a red-nose prop to elicit giggles from patients as a form of therapy in their healing process.

“Friendship is the best medicine, but laughter is a good grease for friendship,” says the man who was the inspiration for the 1988 hit film Patch Adams starring Robin Williams.

Regardless of his aforementioned priority, Adams will be in town Tuesday night to deliver a free lecture on Humour and Health at Centre Mont-Royal as part of McGill University’s Trottier Public Science Symposium.

Adams says he took umbrage with the film, because he was depicted more as a funny doctor than a humanist. He was also miffed that Universal Studios “promised to build us a hospital and made half a billion dollars on the movie — but didn’t give us $10.”

“Then again, almost no one who has said they loved me and loved our work has ever donated,” notes Adams, who is still hopeful about getting an alternative health-care facility built in West Virginia. “When I started with this project 46 years ago, I was sure it would be built in four years … so imagine my sense of humour.”

There is no confusing Adams for a standup comic over the course of our conversation. He is far more sombre than silly. For excellent reason. He fears for the future of mankind, although he pledges to do his best to bring cheer as we wend our way down uncertain roads.  “We certainly will be extinct in 100 years if we continue on this foolish path we’re on, but for me to be discouraged doesn’t help anybody.”

Adams grew up in Germany, where his father, a U.S. Army vet, was stationed. Following his dad’s death, Adams, with his mother and brother, moved back to the U.S. Initially, these were miserable times for Adams. He was bullied at his Virginia high school and hospitalized three times in a year for contemplating suicide.

“But at age 18, I decided to never have another bad day. I’m now 72 and I’ve gone 54 years without a bad day. I chose to live six qualities: happy, funny, loving, cooperative, creative and thoughtful. To be an instrument for peace and justice and care for all people and nature in every minute of my life,” says Adams who earned his medical degree in 1971 — without ever having earned an undergraduate degree.

“I started clowning as a weird nerd leap, because growing up on military bases, I had to deal with sons of manly men who like to pick on my kind of person. I found out they wouldn’t bully me if I was the fool. So I really started clowning to save my ass.”

Later Adams learned he could incorporate clowning into a greater mission: to foster “loving.”  To that end, he has taken his act to 82 countries to bring a little love to the world.

Adams points out that even more objectionable to the bullying treatment he received as a teen was discovering what kind of country the U.S. was when his family returned.

“I  remember being in the South, in a public park, and that’s when my life changed forever. There was a drinking fountain, which I thought would be for all people, but the sign said: ‘For Whites Only.’ I realized then my country was fake, religion was fake. How could an adult walk by such a sign and not tear it down?

“That’s why I was beaten up most every day for the last two years of high school. Because whenever the ‘N’ word was said in class, I would scream really loud and long until everyone in class hated me.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he adds. “But between my second and third visits to the hospital, I was present at Martin Luther King’s I Had a Dream speech with hundreds of thousands of non-violent revolutionaries. That’s when I realized: ‘You don’t kill yourself, stupid — you make revolution.’ “

Adams may eschew religion, but he has a following which would be the envy of any ministry. His message resonates with pretty much all demographics, but particularly with the young.

“That’s because half my hair is dyed blue and I only wear clown clothes — and  I’m massively immature. It’s also because I’m an extreme extrovert. My eyes are always sparkling and I’m always having fun.”

He’s still practising medicine “every day of my life, dealing with the health of the world — and not what they teach in typical medical schools, where they only cover one domain: diseases of individuals.”

To that end, every year Adams organizes a group of volunteers who dress as clowns and travel around the world to bring humour and hope to patients and orphans as well as to build clinics and schools.

“I’m never not a doctor. If I go on anywhere and I see a person hurting, I engage.”

AT A GLANCE

Dr. Patch Adams will speak on Humour and Health at the Trottier Public Science Symposium on Tuesday at 7 p.m., at Centre Mont-Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke St. W. (at Mansfield St.). Admission is free.

bbrownstein@postmedia.com

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