Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A Being of Love

Dr. Mitchell was the first naturopathic doctor I met. He was probably still a student at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine then; I'm not sure. I didn't know about NCNM at the time, but Bill's alma mater was located on 45th Street, just east of Stone Way North, in the building that is now the clinic of Jennifer Huntoon, N.D. I went to an evening class that was noted in the Seattle Weekly newspaper, in a cute old craftsman house-turned-storefront just around the corner from NCNM, a few blocks south on Stone Way. (Small world, eh?) They sold incense and tie-dye tapestries and imported things from Asia, meditation tapes and books on growing sprouts, and crystals. Bill had borrowed or rented the store space for the after-hours and was teaching a massage class for about $6 per head. We sat in two rows of chairs and he talked for awhile, mostly about naturopathic medicine; then we wound up on the floor practicing the techniques. That, I came to know, was just like Bill Mitchell, always comfortable, always creating intimacy when it was least expected, most welcome. Bill demonstrated the use of his clenched forearm muscles as a tool to deeply massage a large muscle belly. An athlete, his own forearms were huge and strong, clear in my memory. That was about 1976.

Three years later and much water over the dam - hearing of a new school teaching an avant-garde medical science and philosophy in Seattle, having precepted for three days with Joseph Pizzorno ND at the busy little office he shared with Bill Mitchell ND on Queen Anne Avenue, and visited a class Joe taught on Naturopathic Philosophy on the 4th floor of Seattle Central Community College - I went to my admissions interview to John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine in that same office of Pizzorno and Mitchell, sat in the same old brown wooden chair I'd precepted in next to Joe and Bill's large brown wooden desk, and answered questions from the utterly kind, amiable and reassuring Bill Mitchell, Dean of Admissions for JBCNM. I was admitted, class of 1983, and met Dr. Eric Jones while waiting for the interview, to boot.

The first month of school in the Fall of 1979, Vice President Mitchell took about 20 first and second-year students (we only had the two classes at that point!) in a caravan of cars to a grey cool drippy and very green trailhead somewhere on the western slope of the Cascades within a couple hours of Seattle, for a day hike. I have had ever since (it is on my wall today) a photo of me, Ron Waling, and another young student whose first name was Kaye sitting for lunch in that gorgeous forest. As our leader, Bill, a fabled too-fast hiker, was indeed going too fast for most of us to keep up, so we got spread out for a long way along the trail - a miracle no one got lost or fully left behind; but no one did!

Bill Mitchell at JBCNM taught many classes - in philosophy, botanical medicine, nutrition, etc. Bill was a unique lecturer in those days, in that he could not stay on topic. The first class I remember started out with Dr. Mitchell posing a question to the room of 35 eager souls "what is the most important thing to do when you have to tend an infant with a persistent high fever and vomiting?" We volunteered answer after answer - stop the vomiting, lower the temperature, give antivirals - to which Bill responded each time in his big weighted voice with "Then the child will die!" - which made an impression, I'll tell you. Finally, he let us in, saying somberly "You give her fluids; dehydration will kill the child faster than anything!" And then the subject wandered from one thing to the next, and within 30 minutes we were all down on the floor, chairs and tables pushed aside, giving each other massages! This is a true story, and I tell it because it shows what a moving and intimate spirit Bill is. He of course learned to lecture, finding himself in the esoterics of biochemistry and the like, thrilling us with a holism we had not encountered in science before.

I remember Dr. Mitchell as a clinical supervisor. It was 1981-82, in the bank building, 2nd floor and on the NE corner of 45th St. and University Avenue. Bill was the model of trust and support and mentorship - perhaps too trusting! Wanting to cement our confidence in our own authority, he didn't go into the exam rooms to meet the patients! We'd stand with Bill in the high-ceilinged hall outside the room where the patient waited, he'd listen to our report of history and exam findings, all the while jotting notes on a small blank white pad. Our report completed, he'd efficiently tear off the note and hand it over, moving on to the next room with a typically kind and encouraging last word, like "this patient is going to get better!" On the paper was written his differential diagnosis, suggestions for possible diagnostic or treatment steps to take at that point, from which we were to choose. He kept it simple! He was generally correct in his prescriptions, and I recall marveling, wondering if the day would come for me when I would have such clear quick insight and understanding.

Then when our class approached graduation in the Spring of 1983 and we wanted Dr. Mitchell to give the keynote address, we had a meeting to figure out how to get him to do it. Bill had said no to the first graduating class, the class before us, and to classes at NCNM, and was known for not seeking the large stage. So we needed a good strategy, and indeed hit upon it. We elected a small group of classmates who were close to Bill, whose assignment it became to take him to dinner, warm him up and pop the question. The strategy worked, because the setting of friendship and warmth always spoke the most strongly to Bill. His address was really special on our graduation night; and he went on in the next 25 years to address one or two more graduating classes as well.

Years later when we were both faculty at JBCNM, I remember a national convention, sitting behind Bill at a mesmerizing lecture from Dr. Peter D'Adamo (JBCNM '82) about lectins and the biochemical-immunology of a diet prescribed according to blood type, and Bill turned in his chair bursting with a message he needed to share, said "this is fantastic!" And it was, I agreed.
Several years ago there was a large sit-down dinner party in the chapel, I believe it was for Bill's birthday, and Bill spoke after the meal for a long time, telling two intriguing parables, one of his creation that was about the spirit of preventive medicine. It was a special evening, went late with words and wisdom.

Lots and lots more bits of memories - Bill in other classrooms, at graduations, conventions, in the hall, out of doors, at Joe's house, teaching yoga at lunch hour on campus, lecturing at the WANP, serving together on the Bastyr Board of Trustees, I the faculty representative.

I remember Bill and Joe standing next to John Bastyr, sort of propping the old gentleman up at the podium on the small lawn out front of our Latona School campus, and a large banner that said Bastyr University. That was the day the name changed. Dr. Bastyr said a few words that probably few heard in the blustery wind that whisked them quickly away from his lips, carrying them the wrong direction. As I remember, Joe placed a smooth six-inch oblong piece of black basalt rock, picked up from the soil nearby, onto the notes Dr. Bastyr was speaking from to keep them from blowing away. I still have that rock at home in a box of treasures. The last thing I remember of the ceremony is Bill Mitchell slowly solidly patiently walking with his hand inside Dr. Bastyr's arm as our old mentor and namesake, steadied, shuffled to his car.

The last strong memories I have of Bill Mitchell are two. Six or eight national conventions ago, I encountered Bill pacing in a sunny parking lot outside the hotel, I on a break to get some quick air. I asked him what he was up to and learned he was struggling with what he would be saying to the assembly - he was to be the next speaker in a few moments and was troubled, having difficulty choosing between a couple of topics! I said to him "Bill, you just talk about anything you want to talk about; we always love to hear anything you have to say about anything." This immediately relaxed him, and we went on in. He was soon up on the podium, introduced his talk with "Well, I don't know how this is going to go over, but if you don't like my talk blame it on John Hibbs!" And then he launched into probably the most unusual lecture we'd ever heard in that setting, speaking to, as I recall, the questions "what is life, why are we here, what is a spirit, and what is it all about?" That was definitely Bill, as usual leading the way into new territory, always personal, always important.

Bill's last couple years were sad in a terrible way, and in the end it was perhaps too much. I share with all, though, that that is not what I take away from this wonderful man and friend, though it grieves me.

This is what I take away: For the last number of years at the national gatherings, Bill took to wandering randomly, blissfully around the large hall floor crowded with new and old colleagues, saying repeatedly to each person he literally bumped into whether he knew them or not, a little heart message. I remember two of them. The first time Bill said to me "John, you are an angel! You're an angel!" - this while he was holding me by both shoulders, his face close, then a big hug, and then he moved on to share this with the next person he encountered. The next time I was fortunate to have Bill bounce like this into my path, or I into his, he held me close to his chest like a bear, and said "John, you are love, you are made of love!"

That was Dr. Bill Mitchell, our Bill Mitchell. He loved and helped us; he changed our lives. I am full and spilling over at this moment with thankfulness, admiration, appreciation. You are a being of love even more purely, clearly now Bill. We carry that in our hearts.

John Hibbs, ND '83
January 25, 2007