6 APRIL 2004


Patch Adams prescribes his ‘laughter therapy’

The clown doctor visiting Moscow again in his continuing bid to cheer up patients. Credit: Mike Solovyanov / MT

For Hunter “Patch” Adams, clowning around is serious business. The American doctor was an unusual sight last week at the Pediatric Oncology Institute in southern Moscow. Dressed in loud, colorful clothing, with long blue hair tied back in a ponytail, Adams clowned for a group of young cancer patients, along with a brigade of volunteers and a giant inflatable chicken. Over the last several decades, Adams, 58, has brought his unique brand of “laughter therapy” to more than 50 countries, including war-torn nations like Bosnia and Afghanistan. Russia is a regular stop on his unending world tour — his first trip here was in 1974, and he has clowned in Russia every year since 1985. “One of the reasons I love Russia so much is because I come from a very wealthy country where everyone is always complaining,” Adams said. “Why are they complaining? They have so much.”

In fact, Adams is a lifelong admirer of Russian culture. His first contact with Russia was through its literature and music — his favorite author is Dostoevsky; his favorite piece of music is Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. During his initial visits to the Soviet Union, he became friends with a number of Russian artists, which increased his enthusiasm for Russian culture. “I loved the fact that they had not yet become a TV culture, and that all my Russian friends knew poetry by heart,” Adams said. “I loved sitting around a table until four in the morning, discussing ideas, politics, literature and friendship.”

Adams comes to Russia every year for two weeks in November (last week's event was an additional visit), leading groups of clowns to hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes. His clowns initially came from the United States, but he has since recruited members of his troupe from Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. “The Russian people are very responsive,” Adams said. “So I saw it as a really great place to train people and introduce them to clowning.”

In his youth, Adams was a self-described “science nerd” and, of course, the class clown. However, his formative years were not easy. His father was killed in combat during the Vietnam War, and Adams suffered from depression, spending several stints in a mental hospital. The experience convinced him to dedicate his life to serving humanity. In 1972, he started the Gesundheit Institute, a free medical clinic in an impoverished area of West Virginia. Since then, he has worked to expand the clinic and turn it into a permanent facility.

By dressing up as a clown and entertaining seriously ill patients, Adams has gained worldwide fame — most notably, as the subject of a 1998 film starring Robin Williams. Adams is also a longtime political activist. As a teenager living in the segregated South, he joined the civil rights movement and was often beaten at demonstrations. Today, he is outspoken about his antiwar views and his opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush. But Adams is best-known for his clowning, which has lifted the spirits of seriously ill patients around the world. In Russia, he has helped raise the profile of Maria's Children, a group of volunteers who use art therapy and clowning to improve the lives of sick and orphaned children. Over the years, the clowns have gained a lot of fans — not all of them kids.

Doctors at the Pediatric Oncology Institute say that visits from clowns have a tangible effect on the health of patients. “For a doctor, this is a really big help,” said Yevgenia Moiseyenko, a doctor at the institute. “It gives kids the strength to fight their illness.”

Lev Durnov, the director of the institute and one of Russia's foremost oncologists, agreed. According to Durnov, the volunteers fill a major gap in the health system — the lack of in-house psychologists and social workers who monitor the mental health of patients, as well as their parents and the hospital staff. “There's a burnout syndrome,” Durnov said. “Often doctors leave early because this is a profession that makes many demands on the soul. A doctor can never really get over the death of a child.”

Against this grim backdrop, the happiness, humor and energy of the clowns provide a welcome relief. Volunteers from Maria's Children visit the hospital regularly. For his part, Adams plans to continue his annual trips to Russia. Later this year, he hopes to visit Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia. Maria Yeliseyeva, the founder of Maria's Children, calls Adams a “generator of ideas” who has provided inspiration for her volunteers. After accompanying Adams on many of his clown trips, she has witnessed firsthand how children react to him. For some, it is their first encounter with an American.

“The kids say, ‘Americans are so cheerful. They're awesome.’ And I say, ‘These aren't just any Americans. They're a special group of Americans.’ ”

By Alexander Osipovich


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