“Patch Adams” is a movie that debuted in 1998, based on the book and life of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams who was determined to become a medical doctor because he enjoys helping people. This true story began a journey into looking at patients as people and working with patients rather than the “top down” mentality of the American Medical System. You can learn more about the Gesundheit! Institute and the ongoing work of the real Dr. Adams here.
I had watched this movie years ago as a young professional and it did make an impact on me as I navigated the world of advocacy as a young attorney; however, I watched it again more recently as part of the homework for a support group for people like me with Stage IV MBC that I help moderate with my Dad, a licensed mental health counselor. Watching this movie as a professional patient, as I often style myself, is so very different. I found myself stopping the movie over and over to capture the words and perspectives that resonated with me, much like I often write reviews of books that resonate with me.
Here are some of the quotes that hit me:
Home is both a place of origin and also a destination.
In the beginning of the movie, Hunter Adams is adrift. He is depressed. He is searching for a reason to go forward, to fit. Broadly, Hunter Adams is seeking a purpose to dedicate his life to. Isn’t that what we all want to varying degrees?
In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood. For I had lost the right path.
Also from the beginning of the movie, Hunter Adams described his depression, his struggle as being lost in the dark woods. Having experienced some dark nights of the soul due to my MBC diagnosis, I can relate to this thought. The real life character chose to enter a mental institution to get help, addressing his issues, and ensure his own safety.
While in the institution, he met a wide variety of characters, including a man who was so smart that he also was voluntarily committed. Hunter, who receives the nickname, Patch, is also counseled that:
If you focus on problem, you can’t see the solution; never focus on the problem, look beyond. Don’t see what everyone else sees. See what everyone else chooses not to see because of fear, conformity and laziness. See the whole world anew each day.
This concept is a different way of saying “thinking outside the box” and forms the basis, the foundation, for many of the actions Dr. Adams takes throughout his time in medical school and beyond. He also learns through his own patient experience that:
A doctor interacts with people at their most vulnerable, he offers treatment but he also offers counsel and hope.
It is a rare clinician who is able to offer all three, especially to a terminal cancer patient, in my experience. As Dr. Adams urges his classmates, professors and colleagues …
We have to learn to treat the patient as well as the disease. That’s why we have to dive into people, wade into the sea of humanity.
When the Dean and professors attempted to limit Dr. Adams in his efforts and even prevent him from graduating from medical school, he says …
The doctors didn’t help me, the patients helped me. They helped me by showing me by helping them I could forget about my own problems and I did.
He goes on to say …
Is not a doctor someone who helps someone else? A doctor is a trusted and learned friend who visits and treats the ill.
The panel of doctors (who I identified with a great deal as a lawyer always concerned with risk), expressed concerns about the medical student, Hunter “Patch” Adams’, habits of treating people in an unlicensed clinic stocked with stolen medical supplies. In fact, they expressed a concern that patients or the students might die.
What is wrong with death? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity and decency and, God forbid, even humor. Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference.
One of the first patients the movie showed the main character interacting with in the hospital attached to the medical school was a terminal patient, a man who had painful pancreatic cancer and would throw things and growl and yell at everyone. This patient was in great pain and struggling with his impending death. Patch connected with him, treated him as a human being, didn’t lie to him about the prognosis, and eased his passing.
Yet, one of the issues that the movie addresses very directly is the overtly taught skill of a doctor holding him/herself aloof from the patient. I learned a bit about this in law school too. In order to be a good clinician or a good guide, the idea is to avoid transference. The idea in teaching this is to keep the clinician’s personal feelings out of the doctor/patient relationship and thus, theoretically, to keep the patients from affecting the doctors too much.
The main character’s perspective on this idea is:
Transference is inevitable. Every human being has an impact on another. Why don’t we want that in a patient/doctor relationship?
He goes on to say:
A doctor’s mission should not just to prevent death but also to improve the quality of life. That’s why if you treat a disease, you win you lose; you treat a person, I guarantee you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.
As a professional patient, I think the American medical system is much better about treating symptoms than improving quality of life. In my experience, finding a clinician who is interested in the patient’s quality of life is actually more rare than it should be. There are those clinicians whose overall job is to focus on quality of life, like palliative care doctors; at the same time, I believe each doctor has a role to play in addressing quality of life and it should not take a patient begging to have that addressed.
The movie ends with Patch Adams graduating from medical school and going on to fulfill his dream of a supportive institute that combines the best of medical care with the needs of the patient to arrive at a place where the patient’s whole person is supported.
He says …
Compassion should be contagious.
It’s not just doctors or medical professionals who need to think in terms of treating everyone with compassion. The definition of compassion is a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Modeling compassion and not only seeing, but working to alleviate the suffering or distress of others is indeed contagious.
May we all practice contagious compassion today and every day!