Walcott repeatedly tries to have Adams thrown out, but the rebellious student triumphs in the end, managing to graduate with honors and open a free clinic that continues to thrive.
Adams' methods, while unorthodox, have been proven effective. James Rotton and Mark Shats (1996, October 16) report on the results of a field experiment they conducted that tested the impact of exposure to humor on postsurgical patients. Those who heard jokes or were encouraged to tell funny stories were significantly less likely to request additional pain medication during their recovery than those in the control group. They also reported feeling in a better mood and having more optimistic expectations of recovery.
These kinds of results are reflected in the movie. When Adams appeals his expulsion to Walcott's superior, Dean Anderson, the older man admits that his sources have shown the benefits of Adams' hospital visits. The nurses on duty have told him that Adams has improved the quality of life for his patients. They observe that patients he has given individual attention to tend to complain less and use less pain medication.
Humor has been shown to be effective in dealing with stress. Susan Flagg Godbey and her associates (1997, May) report, "A new study shows that most anyone can slash negative responses to stress by mentally writing an impromptu sitcom of sorts" (p. 30).
The nurses are initially skeptical of this goofy student who wears Hawaiian shirts and raises the decibel level on the ward. They observe that, until Adams becomes a third-year student, they outrank him. However, they quickly come to see the value of his approach and start to give him support, usually by simply failing to report his unauthorized presence in the wards.
Deciding what is funny is, of course, a subjective exercise. The Lancet (1998, January 3) argues, "Humour in medicine has no realistic definition" (p. 1), and many critics found the humor in Patch Adams to be strained or simply not very funny. Robin Williams' screen persona, a wild, improvisatory, out-of-control personality, may have seemed ideal casting to play the unconventional, goofy Adams, but Williams' celebrity keeps him from disappearing into the character, and the humor is, at times, simply not very funny.
Although Mitch eventually comes to see the value in Adams' approach, his attitude continues to be held by many in the profession. An anonymous editorial in The Lancet (1998, January 3) contends that physicians have other tools more valuable than humor: "Ask patients would they rather have a doctor who made them laugh or the longer term benefits of one who is courageous and hopeful, and who loved them?" (p. 1). The implied response to this rhetorical question is that any sane patient would give up the laughs in exchange for other qualities. Patch Adams suggests that a sense of humor is not only compatible with other qualities that make an effective doctor but that it is just as important as competence and compassion.
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