Patch Adams’ Advice to Medical Students

By Luke Murray

Patch Adams Advice to Medical StudentsI was at a conference for premedical students a few months ago, and Patch Adams was there giving both the keynote speech along with several workshops. After the conference, 40 or so attendees gathered around him on the lawn, peppering him with questions. Finally, one particularly astute premedical student asked him the question:

“If you could tell only one thing to pre-medical and medical school students, what would it be?”

Without pausing, he said, “You can be the kind of doctor you want to be, no matter what that is.”

When Dr. Adams was in his late teens, he was committed to a mental institution three times for suicidal thoughts. During his third stay, he had the epiphany that would shape his life forever. He wanted to become a doctor and use medicine as an avenue for social change. He did not know at the time what that would look like, exactly, but he was clear about two things: 1.) He was going to be a free doctor and 2.) He was going to be about love above everything else. He went on to describe what each of these commitments looked like in his professional life.

When he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School in 1971, Dr. Adams moved into a large house with 20+ friends and they started calling themselves a hospital. From that day, until they closed in 1983 (to broaden their cause through outreach), they had 5-50 overnight guests every night and saw a total of approximately 15,000 patients. They never charged a dime to a single patient. In fact, they ripped up checks that were secretly left for them. To this day, at the age of 70, Patch has yet to accept money for providing healthcare.

Patch hugs people – especially his patients. For his initial patient interview, Patch goes to his patients’ houses. Over the course of several hours, he asks them everything about their lives because he wants them to feel listened to, understood, loved. He wears ridiculous clothing, not because he wants attention, but because he wants his “weird” appearance to help people feel more comfortable with their own uniqueness. He believes that loving and accepting those around you starts with loving and accepting yourself. When he first decided to go on clown trips, he picked a country that personified “the enemy” at the time: Russia. It’s easy to bring joy to a welcoming audience. It’s a true and defiant act of love when it’s offered to an enemy.

Patch made it clear that his choices weren’t easy. He proudly spoke of working as a file clerk in order to make ends meet financially without compromising on his commitment to never accept money for his professional services. What he didn’t mention, but it was clear to see, was that in taking this stance, he had also declared himself an enemy to any organization that profited off of people’s sickness. This attitude, while in line with his deepest beliefs, has hindered his progress towards achieving other goals (e.g. raising funding from “for profit” healthcare organizations).

But, while these extreme ideals were difficult and costly to live by at times, they were not impossible and the journey was completely worth it. So if your heart leads you towards something that’s not only ambitious but also unorthodox, know that you can make progress that will be immensely rewarding, even if what you set out to achieve is not accomplished completely. That’s certainly true of Patch Adams. While part of Patch’s dreams have come true (an orphanage in Russia) part have not (the Gesundheit Institute Hospital a free hospital built around Patch’s model for health care). But such is the nature of chasing something that’s difficult and that has never been done before.

Unlike his professional goals, Patch’s soul is 100% intact, even after a lifetime in medicine. And in his experience, being the kind of doctor you want to be, congruent with your truest self, while accomplishing only a fraction of your professional goals, is infinitely more rewarding than “succeeding” in an area that’s not in line with your heart’s calling.

So, remember what kind of doctor you came to medical school to become. Never stop chasing that. Because you’ve got nothing to lose that matters. And everything to gain that does.

For more about Dr. Adams:


3 thoughts on “Patch Adams’ Advice to Medical Students”

  1. This is wonderful to read, especially because I have felt at times as though I was different. I think it’s OK to be different, which is doing what he advised. I’ve had patients hug me, children run and throw their arms around my legs, patients ask me how to be happy, and this has been a source of satisfaction for me. So his advice about being the kind of Doctor you want to be, for me, is to feel like that because I’m there they will get better. This is the meaning of my life, that patients get better.

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