February 01, 1999 12:00 PM

At first glance, the real Patch Adams has a lot in common with the zany doctor Robin Williams plays in the hit movie. Like his celluloid counterpart, the genuinely colorful relic from the ’60s likes to don rubber noses and goofy hats and has a wacky sense of humor; after all, he named one of his sons Atomic Zagnut Adams. The real Patch Adams (it’s Hunter Adams by birth) uses humor to foster trust between patients and physicians and to reform the medical profession—he’d like to do away with malpractice and health insurance and put the savings into healing. And, in the same spirit, Adams, 53, enjoys padding around his two-bedroom Arlington, Va., townhouse singing songs and reciting poetry, his baggy pants hiked up to his armpits. Okay, so he didn’t bare his derriere at his med-school graduation ceremony as the movie depicts, but he regrets that rare moment of restraint. “I mooned several times this last weekend,” he insists. “I am not a doctor who is a clown. I am a clown who is a doctor.”

But a quick checkup finds fundamental differences between the surprise box office hit and reality. The doctor’s adversaries in the film are cartoonish bad guys, but in life his critics include some concerned medical professionals, health-care volunteers and even his ex-wife, who says he has done a poor job managing donations to his nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute. The film shows Adams treating patients in hospitals and clinics. In fact, Adams has no patients—and no hospital. That may come as a surprise to moviegoers who read the film’s closing credits: “To date, a waiting list of over 1,000 physicians have offered to leave their current practices and join in Patch’s cause.” Technically true, but the waiting doctors—now there’s a switch—may have to cool their heels a long time. Adams’s fun-filled institute has been under construction for years, but there’s no opening in sight. And while Adams did spend 12 years treating patients at several free clinics in Virginia and West Virginia, he gave all that up in 1983 to devote himself to raising funds for the hospital he envisions on 310 rural acres in Pocahontas County, W.Va. There’s no doubt he’s an inspiration: Praised for his idealism, scorned for his naiveté and reviled in some quarters as downright inept, the real Adams inspires love, hate—and very little in between.

Adams professes discomfort with the publicity the film has brought him, but he is clearly happy that, as he puts it, “America’s beloved actor is in a movie with my name on it that’s going all over the world.” His ambivalence is understandable: The movie’s success has allowed him to raise his speaking fee to a minimum of $15,000. Furthermore, Universal Pictures, which released the film, donated $500,000 to the institute, substantially adding to the more than $1 million that Adams, who bought the site in 1980 for $67,000, has raised over the last 28 years. (He estimates he needs $7 million before he can start seeing patients and another $18 million to finish the theme-park-like complex.) “I could make enough in speaking fees to pay for phase one,” he now says. Adams passes the money along to the Gesundheit! Institute (so named because Gesundheit means “good health” in German), in exchange for an annual salary of $61,200.

The attention comes at a difficult time. Adams and Linda Edquist, his wife of 23 years, divorced last October. “He just wasn’t around a lot,” says Edquist, 48, a museum preservationist with whom he has two children, explaining that the couple drifted apart during his frequent travels. In the ensuing divorce, which a friend describes as “painful,” Patch chose not to consult an attorney, he claims, because of his trusting nature. As a result, Adams says, he pays a hefty $3,400 a month in alimony. His ex-wife also receives a share of the royalties from his two books, the recently released House Calls and Gesundheit!, the 1993 memoir cowritten with Maureen Mylander on which the movie is based. Perhaps worse, Edquist has added her voice to those who say Adams’s hospital, with its planned eye clinic shaped like an eyeball, a hospital sewer treatment center shaped like a buttocks and a separate space for 40 beds, is too expensive and impractical. “Patch sees things his own way and wants them done his own way,” says Edquist, who resigned from the board of Gesundheit! in 1991 because of their disagreements.

Adams’s way also grates on some locals near the Gesundheit! property, where five staffers stay year-round in preexisting structures and in a three-story workshop, the only completed building. Neither they nor the volunteers who join them in the warmer months provide any health-care services. “I wish they did what they said they’d do,” says Eric Domboski, 47, mayor of nearby Hillsboro (whose population is around 300) and a former institute fan. “But it isn’t happening.”

Adams, who drives a beat-up Honda Civic, claims to have no personal savings and vehemently denies squandering any money. “I invite anyone to watch me,” he says. “They would be humbled by what I do.” Indeed, many are, including Rick Wade, senior vice president of the Chicago-based American Hospital Association, a group that represents healthcare organizations. Wade says Adams’s message of compassionate doctoring “is the one that people on the front lines of health care need to hear.” Arlington residents Janice Marcom, 57, and her husband, Steve, 60, heard it—and praise Patch for his work. They were two of 30 volunteers who donned clown costumes with Patch on a tour of facilities for the sick in Russia last November. “When I was doing something for others,” says Marcom, a retired computer analyst who suffers from fibromyalgia, a painful muscle disorder, “I realized I could go beyond my limits.” But Adams’s medical school roommate has a different take. “This guy is not Mother Teresa in a clown nose, okay?” says Tom Shacochis, a Newport News, Va., family doctor. (Unlike the snooty roomie in the movie, Shacochis never warmed to his colleague’s views.) He recalls an Adams who was a brilliant, self-obsessed “buffoon.” Adams readily admits that the film, which he calls the PG-13 version, is based only loosely on his actual experiences. For openers, the real Adams’s humor tends toward ribald jokes dealing with bodily functions. And though the medical student “Williams plays is clearly middle-aged, Adams was only 26 when he graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1971. But he says none of that matters. “The point,” he says, “is compassion, generosity and funny.”

The funny, younger son of Robert Lockridge Adams, a World War II Army officer who died in 1961, and his wife, Anna, a schoolteacher who died in 1989, Patch claims not to remember how he got the nickname he’s had since college. He attributes his ease with strangers to growing up as an Army brat in Japan, Germany and the U.S. Adams was deeply shaken by his father’s death from heart disease at age 52. But it was an uncle’s 1963 suicide that pushed him into despair. “[It] triggered me to drop out of school and try to kill myself,” he recalls.

After further suicide attempts, his mother had him checked into a mental ward at Fairfax Hospital in Virginia at age 18. It was there he turned an emotional corner by helping his new roommate, Rudy—played in the movie by Michael Jeter and, says Adams, the truest character in it—conquer hallucinations and a fear of squirrels. “It was the first time I goofed around with a nut and played with him,” he says. “I saw how easy it was to be intimate with anybody.”

A couple of weeks later, Adams left the ward. He soon enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where much of his studying took place off campus. “I went around to bars three or four nights a week,” Adams recalls, “and wouldn’t let myself leave until I understood the reason why everyone was in the bar.” In medical school, he turned to political protest against the then-raging Vietnam War and became a conscientious objector.

It was that “incredibly charismatic person” with whom Linda Edquist fell in love in 1971 while volunteering at the same Medical College of Virginia clinic where Adams worked in the final months of his training. (Her character is not in the film.) A year later they moved in together at a communal residence in Arlington that served as one of the first Gesundheit! clinics.

Marrying in 1975, they produced Atomic Zagnut (known as Zag) the next year; now a senior studying Spanish at Virginia Commonwealth University, he lives at school and with his father. The couple’s second child, Lars Zig, 11, divides his time between both parents, who reside blocks apart. By the early ’90s, Edquist says, Adams’s vision had begun to dim. “He’s not the same person he was 15 years ago,” she says today. “If you’re constantly told how wonderful you are, you start to believe it.” Of the hospital, she adds, “I would have settled for a much smaller place.”

A smaller place might well be finished by now, but supporters like Rick Wade predict that Adams will ultimately have the last laugh. Today’s medicine is “getting a lot closer to Patch than any of us would have thought,” says Wade. “Most doctors won’t ever achieve what Patch is talking about. But it’s a hell of a thing to motivate you in the morning.”

Alec Foege

Amanda Crawford in Arlington and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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