Clowning is serious business when curing makes way for caring

30 September 2002
THE BAXTER may have been the venue for the 6th annual Comedy Festival, but the clown who sauntered out before an audience of over 1 000 students on September 19 was not part of the show.

Robin Williams doesn't come close to preparing you for the real version of Dr Hunter "Patch" Adams. This man, a six-foot plus 57-year old, lives in riotous clown clothes in colours your mother warned you never to team up. He sports a Baron von Munchausen moustache, blue hair worn in a long, stringy plait and a dangly earring that imparts a piratical air. And when you're done with this visual feast you have the shoes; well-worn, enormous yellow and red clown shoes in the softest leather. These feet have travelled.

Adams has been on the road for 20 years, 300 days a year. He survives on two to five hours sleep a night. This month he will travel 80 000 miles to drum up support for his "Gesundheid Institute", a non-profit hospital project incorporating his particular philosophy of healing: humour, joy of service, the creative arts and the integration of varied healing traditions. In South Africa, the funds collected will also support AIDS orphans. Adams also plans to initiate a replica clowning movement in South Africa.

He describes himself as a political activist for peace, justice and care. Clowning is just part of the act of getting into people's lives, he says. He loves to elicit a reaction; to get people talking. He admits he loves nothing more than entering an elevator full of tight-lipped people in grey suits. You can imagine the rest.

He loves people so much that when he was a medical student ("I was a nerd. I got straight As, so with time on my hands I clowned in class every single day. I'm an in-your-face, bad clown.") he'd phone random numbers just to talk with strangers. "I got real good at it."

Hospitalised three times between the ages of 16 and 18 and suicidal because he didn't want to live in a world of violence and injustice, Adams decided after his last visit never to have another bad day. "Which is why we're a little manic here," he quipped to the rapt audience of health care students from UCT, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape.

But Adams is not funny for the sake of it. He uses humour to build a community. "I work for the preciousness of humanity. We're a caring profession, not a curing profession," he tells the assembly of budding health care professionals. "When your patient has AIDS and there's no curing, all you have is caring." But medicine as a business had eliminated the word "care" from the vocabulary of health practitioners, he added.

He and a team of clown doctors have been travelling the world, visiting hospitals and patients, taking aid, medicine and food into war zones and refugee camps in Cuba, Serbia and Afghanistan, to orphanages where patients lie three in a bed with no food or medicine, to "make care a value in the world and not money". "We want to go where people are hurting," he adds. "You see, everyday to me is 9/11. There are tragedies of this magnitude happening every day all around the world."

Fresh from an earlier visit to Groote Schuur Hospital where he and his clowns turned a few wards upside down with music and dancing with patients, Adams decried the attitudes of "tight-assed" doctors. "There are doctors who'd rather look at a patient's chart than in their eyes." And although he loves having the children brought to see him at the hospitals he visits, Adams is equally concerned with the needs of the nurses and staff who deal with illness every working day and who especially need to have their humour batteries recharged.

"In health care you have to have a sense of humour," said Professor Trevor Gibbs (Director, Educational Development Unit) in his earlier introduction to Patch Adams. "And in this country you've got to have a fantastic sense of humour."

Dr Helgo Schomer from UCT's Psychology Department, travelled with Adams during the tour and called it a "green light" experience.

"What a Tour de France in compassion! This has been a crash course in clowning. The clowning doctors open the doors of the mind and soul to express caring use humour. I will certainly push the barriers of orthodox care-giving. Humour has a liberating capacity, providing a healthy way of looking at one's life situation with perspective."

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