Here's What the Real Patch Adams Has Been Up To

Patch Adams smiling and wearing a hat and red clown nose

 Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

He started an institute for making the world more playful and loving.

In Tom Shadyac's 1998 film "Patch Adams," Robin Williams plays a doctor who thinks play is part of healing. The movie starts with a suicidal Adams in a mental institution who discovers a new view on life. He repeatedly pranks his medical school and starts a small, free clinic where he clowns around with patients. In his clinic, doctors don't talk down to nurses, and loneliness is treated as a serious condition that can cause depression and other psychiatric symptoms.

The Real-Life Mission of Patch Adams

The movie is based on a real man. While the movie (which is part fact, part fiction) ends with Adams a few years out of medical school, the real Adams went on to continue his mission.

"Stupid," he once told his younger self. "You don't kill yourself, you make revolution."

In fact, Patch, as he prefers to be called, is still trying to raise money to build his dream hospital, a place where doctors and janitors make similar salaries, where everything is communal and where patients are treated with fun and love, not just pills and surgeries. He wants to create a model for hospitals everywhere.

But for now, he has a piece of land in West Virginia, the site of his future hospital. On it, he runs the Gesundheit Institute and the School for Designing a Society, organizations that focus on making the world more playful and loving. People can get involved in short-term programs in things like social medicine and starting organizations. They can also go on clown trips, where Patch and other clowns go to places like hospitals, schools and even war zones to deliver good cheer.

"I dove into the ocean of gratitude and never found a shore," Patch told me. In his opinion, if a person has food and a friend, they need not complain.

Health Benefits From Nature

Not that he thinks the world is perfect. Patch thinks a lack of connection to nature is a massive health problem.

"Watching nature on TV shows how disconnected we are," he said. Patch hopes his hospital will inspire others to follow their own dreams. He wants to bring people together for peace and justice for all living things and nature.

He's part of a community that believes the same. Susan Parenti, a playwright, musician, and Patch's wife, recently wrote "STOP THAT," a play about trying to stop everything and focus on climate change. The two believe that art can create real social change. Clowning, Patch says, give him a special kind of access to people.

"I've had two presidents in my underpants," he told me. "You can't do that in a suit."

The real Patch is far more revolutionary than his movie counterpart, and he imagines a much more equal society. While clowning might be playful, the red noses and funny clothes hide something important.

"They say the strongest tarot card is the fool," Patch said. "The fool is the one person who can make fun of the king and not be beheaded."