Patch Adams: A Medical Student Perspective

Stefan L. Montgomery, The University of South Carolina School of Medicine


As I entered the theater, I was wondering if all of the rumors had been true. Yes, I had seen the previews. I needed to experience it for myself, though. So I went. I am glad I did. I watched Patch Adams (1), a movie about a man that traveled down the same path that I am taking. He sat with Netter (2) just as I had. He belated not having hands-on contact with patients until the third year. He memorized the cranial nerves.

What Patch did that I didnít, however, was shine. He shone when he took exams. He shone when he made patients (whom he called friends) laugh and feel better. And he shone in front of a very intimidating medical board who basically held the key to unlock his career as a physician.

The movie I saw presented this flawless man to me. I cried when he was sad. I laughed when he entertained patients. And I wanted to stand up and cheer when he rose to the occasion of testifying in front of his medical school class, dean, and state medical board.

But was the character presented truly flawless? Does this fictional character deserve to reside on the ethical and moral pedestal that filled my mind as I left the theater?

Many medical students, arguably, will go see this movie. And I dare say that many will be influenced by the teachings of this character. What we must remember as medical students, however, is that this fictional character could not--in my opinion--reside in the world of medical students today.

Patch stole supplies from the hospital where he worked as a 3rd year. Yes, he went in to the Deanís office with the intent of apologizing, etc. But should he really have stolen to help these indigent patients? Could he not have asked for donations or permission to use the supplies. No, that would reveal the other flaw in the character. Patch Adams practiced medicine without a medical license. However eloquently he defended his position in front of the medical board, he knew just enough as a third year student to be dangerous. And in the process, he jeopardized his future as a physician and the doctor-patient relationship. Was he punished for this? On the contrary. He was given a standing ovation from his peers.

There are many lessons to be learned as a student from Patch:

Listening is critical to understanding the patient.
A positive attitude aids the healing process.
A respect and reverence for death is better than treating death as a foe.
Give of yourself and you will receive mountains in return.
Sometimes the current standards need to be challenged.
All patients can open up to you if given the correct prompt.
Laughing at yourself and accepting oneís own flaws will protect humility.

Of course I enjoyed the movie. I would recommend that all medical students view it and embrace the aforementioned lessons. I would caution, however, that life as a medical student is not always as black and white as this movie might lead us to believe.

1. Patch Adams [Motion Picture]. Oedekerk, Steve. Zimmerman, Don, editor; Shadyac ,Tom, et al., producer, [Los Angeles]: Universal Studios; 1998. Credits: Directed by Tom Shadyac.

2. Netter FH. Atlas of Human Anatomy. 1st ed. East Hanover, NJ: Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp; 1989.

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