When Heather Powell met Patch Adams

For the real Patch Adams, treating illness with the power of laughter was more than just a Hollywood byline. How he taught me that is up next in our TBS Boomers series.

It was in the early 1990s. I had read of this American doctor who advocated the importance of humour and compassion in hospitals. It was long before the film starring Robin Williams was made, though nothing could prepare me for the actual experience of encountering Patch Adams in person.

It was a day in Scottish August – the rain lashing down, and my first visit to the Findhorn Foundation near Inverness. An expectant “new age” mob was crammed into a room far too small for the occasion. The door opened. Everyone broke off mid-sentence and gaped. In sauntered a tall slim multi-coloured apparition. His long brown hair was plaited and reached the base of his spine. He had bushy eyebrows, a flamboyant moustache and dangly earrings. His flowing smock shirt and baggy pants a riot of different colours, even different coloured socks, nevertheless gave an impression of artful harmony.

He grinned at his dumb-struck audience. After a friendly hello, he asked in a clear voice everyone could hear, “Now before we start…is there anyone among you who gets embarrassed if asked to stand up and make a public show of themselves?”

A girl apprehensively raised her hand. “Ah, good!” he beamed. Everyone watched as he threaded his way through the chairs and sat on the shy girl’s lap and gave her an enormous hug. The crowd erupted in laughter, she blushed then laughed as well. Patch stood up and said, “There! That wasn’t too dreadful after all, was it? Now you need never again be afraid of being embarrassed.”

Weaving his way around the crowded room, he would speak to this person or that.

“Laughter is not about telling jokes at a party. It is far more.”

“What is the most infectious thing that spreads fastest among human beings?”

No one answered.

“It is not the common cold, or plagues. No…it is laughter.”

He encouraged us to promote laughter in our particular arena, to notice how laughter, even a smile, can instantly diffuse tension in a situation. It is not the huge occasional dramas, it’s the little stressors that occur on a daily basis. They build up unnoticed. That’s when the diversion of a smile can break that tension.

“You have all been in a room filled with chatting groups. Suddenly one group bursts into peals of laughter. What does everyone do? They break off their own conversation and stare at the source of the laughter. Test if for yourself. Burst out laughing in a public place and observe the effect.”

He earnestly encouraged each one of us to promote laughter in our particular arena, to notice how laughter, even a smile, can instantly diffuse tension in a situation. It is not the huge occasional dramas, it’s the little stressors that occur on a daily basis. They build up unnoticed – like a parent battling with the shopping at the checkout counter while the baby is screaming its head off; the agitation of a patient in a doctor’s or lawyer’s waiting room; being delayed and fretting that the parking metre has run out or a person waiting for you has left. That’s when the diversion of a smile can break that tension. He had us in helpless fits of laughter, relating stories of how he does this – at airports, in shops, queues, on the street.

“Equally important” he stressed, was “to laugh at the serious things – yes, even death – anything that frightens us, in fact especially those things”.


Also on The Big Smoke


“And there is one source of humour guaranteed to avoid any personal offence: yourself! Each of us can be an endless source for giving others a laugh.”

Patch then asked us all, “and what is the very worst thing anyone can say about you if you are acting the fool?”

“That you’re mad,” all laughed in unison.

“Exactly! And what is wrong with being labelled mad? Ask yourself: ‘do I have a personal issue with madness?’” The room became silent again.

“It is possible to laugh at anything unless you have some personal unresolved issue with that subject.”

That struck a chord in my memory. It was years earlier. I was directing a play in a boy’s High School in Harare. Twelve Angry Men was written by an American who never imagined black Africans might be cast as members of the jury. One of the lads approached me with a big grin on his black face “Excuse me Ma’am, I think you’re going to have change a few of my lines. I refer to Lovemore as that sour looking man over there with the blond hair and mean blue eyes.”

“Oh heavens, I see what you mean!”

We both grinned, then he cheerily added, “well Ma’am, I can just say ‘who is that mean black bastard over there?’”

Everyone laughed – and everyone could, because no one had an issue about the colour of their skin or that of anyone else’s.

Patch had incisively pinpointed the mindset that inhibits humanity’s delicious, health-giving, innate humour from bubbling up. That workshop with Patch ignited a spark in me that is alive and well to this day, and I remain eternally grateful.

“You have all been in a room filled with chatting groups. Suddenly one group bursts into peals of laughter. What does everyone do? They break off their own conversation and stare at the source of the laughter. Test if for yourself. Burst out laughing in a public place and observe the effect.”

Back in Batemans Bay, NSW, a meeting was called to inaugurate a U3A group . All agreed to run a course to give the venture a kick start.

“Heather, what will be your topic?”

“Laughter.”

Laughter?”

“Yes, laughter.”

“Oh…well, er…thank you.”

I had no idea what I would do, but do it I would…somehow!

What a ball. We compiled Smile Files for waiting rooms and hospitals, painted clowns on Grin Bins, spoke and wrote on “My Most Brilliant Blunders”. On and on we rolled. I even self-published a book on my own life of brilliant blunders to give a laugh, and in the hope others might share a laugh at their own “mis-takes”.

Meanwhile, Patch Adams still travels with teams of clowns to places all over our planet that are war-torn or oppressed – as he has done since he first took clowns to cheer anxious folk on the streets of Moscow during the harsh communist rule there. What a man, what an inspiration to all who would choose to look at what he is doing and the moulds he has broken.

 

Heather Powell

Born Dublin. December 1943, I went to an Art College and became an art teacher, teaching naughty Girls in Zimbabwe from about 1972. I then worked with the army rehab centre till mid 80s, then in England I worked with physically disabled adults. In 1989 I came to Australia.

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