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Review of the film Patch Adams and what it can teach us about Pastoral Care

Updated on November 30, 2011
Patch entertaining the sick children
Patch entertaining the sick children

Patch Adams is based on the true story of the man by the same name who dared to practice true compassion in a personal way with everyone he crossed- including patients in the hospital he worked in. He also went on to set up an illegal medical facility for people who could not afford medical insurance. That facility soon became legal and still exists today to help treat people who otherwise would not be able to afford medical treatment. I had this to write about as a Bible College assessment on compassion in Pastoral care. Enjoy and be inspired :)

The film Patch Adams teaches a great deal about the pastoral care of other people. Firstly, Patch sees the person instead of the problem. He realises problems are real to the people who have them. He knows the importance of hope, and tries restoring this in people. Also Patch knows encounters should be personal and affect both parties and that a person may need help even if they do not ask.

‘Look at me. You’re focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution’.

The asylum encounter causes Patch’s causes Patch’s highly personal approach in caring. He chooses to see the person not their problem, because it reduces the person to their problem. Like the woman in Simon’s house whom Simon saw in terms of her problem, Jesus saw her as a person and gave her the personal approach needed to help her.

Patch knows Rudy cannot be told his problem isn’t real because to Rudy it is. Instead he helps Rudy face and conquer his problem. Pastoral Care involves realising that a person’s problems are real to them. We must acknowledge this to them, re-affirming their capability to reason, then get alongside them and help equip them to overcome their own personal challenges. We ought not to demean them by trivialising their difficulty, but validate their thoughts and feelings.

Patch focuses on helping people fulfil their hopes and dreams. He realises that people have unfulfilled dreams about what life could be- believing these things can’t happen causes loss of hope. Helping people fulfil their fantasies, gives them new hope and in each instance they opened up and reconnected with people. Patch made people feel safe being themselves causing confidence in opening up to others and being whole again. Sometimes this kind of care can help a person move closer to who they truly are through helping them discover that. The knock on effect is that people take this hope into other areas of their life, and they no longer feel constrained by circumstance.

Patch really wants encounters to affect people. In Christianity, and especially in the realm of pastoral care, we talk about the importance of having an encounter with God. In light of Patch’s encounters with people, and their heightened awareness of him and his actions which leave their lives changed, even on a ‘mundane’ level, like the woman in the street when he said hello hanging upside down from a lamppost. She was aware of him and it changed the course of her actions. She turned back, laughed and said hello. She did have an encounter with Patch, in the same way we want people we are providing pastoral care to to have an encounter with Jesus- but how can they do this if we do not profoundly encounter them first in the course of it? Patch does not position himself in people’s lives and communicate on a formal level or even polite level- but he takes it to the personal and talks directly to the person’s heart. This is invaluable when we are administering pastoral care to people.

Patch with a young leukemia patient
Patch with a young leukemia patient
There is now an International Day of Compassion in honor of Patch Adams work
There is now an International Day of Compassion in honor of Patch Adams work

The real Patch Adams

Perhaps a truly thought provoking element in Patch’s personal approach is that it is a two- way encounter. So much so in Church ministry, we are one way in our approach. We are taught to maintain a personal boundary for the best care of the other person. We are keen to hear their problems, and encourage them to open up about who they truly are; their pains, disappointments, hopes and dreams. But this makes it a case of how we can help them without sharing ourselves and our own worries, hopes etc which puts us on an uneven keel, and is demeaning to them. If a person is in this situation they are more acutely aware of their problem, does this encourage their problem to become disproportionate? Do they begin to see themselves in terms of their problem, and not in terms of being a fuller, more rounded person? It would be more respectful to the person who is the care- giver to be on the same level as the care- giver. To keep in mind the dignity of that person is vital, and it is near impossible to do this without giving them the opportunity to realise that they are not the only person in this exchange who faces personal troubles in life. Where we choose to draw the line in this sharing and connecting process would depend entirely on the specific situation, while noting that sometimes boundaries are necessary for the objectivity needed to help a person. Also, in terms of qualifications of the care- giver there may be inequality so we respect their trained position.

Secondly, unlike the profound response Patch has to every encounter with a person he is helping or connecting to, we could be dangerously unmoved by these encounters. If we are to acknowledge that the encounter of two people should cause an encounter in each by the other then both people must be open to being responsive, and even changed by it. Patch’s empathy and joy rises each time he connects with a person. He has no inequality in his encounters. People see that they have stirred a response in him and they respond to that, if this continues a relationship of trust and confidence is built. Can there be any other way for progress in Pastoral Care?

Another strength of Patch’s approach is that he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that people only need help if they ask for it. The volatile patient with Cancer and Korin both rejected his attempts to engage them and help them, but he continued because he saw a need and it translated to him as a call for help. His persistence did pay off and both people were helped immensely by his involvement in their lives. However, sometimes we must not get involved in a person’s difficulties if they do not ask for help, as this can be demeaning and interfering. It is a case of judgement call.

In conclusion, Patch’s very personal approach to helping people is something we can learn from in Pastoral care as we need to be aware of the importance of developing connections with those we provide care to. We must see the person, not the problem; acknowledge the seriousness of that person’s problem, be open to being moved in encountering them and be aware that pastoral care is not always a result of someone expressing a need for it. We must see also that boundaries are sometimes helpful for objectivity.

The real Patch Adams
The real Patch Adams


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    • profile image

      Lone Ranger 6 years ago

      Dear Grace:

      Good movie...even better critique!

      You certainly are a deep breath of fresh air!

      I am glad nobody asked me to give an in-depth critique on this movie, because being of a shallow nature and never looking any deeper than the obvious, I only came away thinking that it's probably better to wear pants on one's graduation day, than to not. Or am I wrong about that?

      Peace be with you and God's speed...unless you are a Mormon or something like that. :0) - L.R.

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 6 years ago from Tennesee

      I really enjoyed reading this hub as I loved the film and always wanted to know more about the real man. Thanks much for sharing!