Keith Bell, a yoga teacher and an avid mountain biker, sat meditating. A “wholesome curiosity” had led Bell to attend a 10-day Buddhist-inspired meditation retreat in Ashland. During one of the 14-hour daily silent sessions of Vipassana, he had an epiphany: He needed to fulfill his long-term goal of becoming a physician assistant.
“I realized I needed to return to my true life path. When I got into teaching yoga, I lost sight of that,” said Bell, 45, of his experience 11 years ago. “Those 10 days of stillness and quiet allowed me to go back to my inner voice, to distill it. I knew I needed to go to PA school.”
Now a seven-year physician assistant at Mosaic Medical Center, Bell marries the hard science of medicine with a visceral understanding of the mind and body. This combined approach helps Bell connect with the 10 to 18 patients he sees each day. Bell listens for what the patient values — which sometimes isn’t healthiness so much as being free from pain — and works causally from there.
“I try to use my meditation and yoga to create the art of relationships so I can present medicine that is a successful motivator toward health for each patient,” he said, adding that it is an approach that is becoming more prevalent in patient-centered care.
As a physician assistant focusing on family practice, Bell has 1,000 patients. He also staffs a mini specialty clinic where he performs joint injections, skin biopsies and cyst removals.
A dose of one’s own medicine
Yoga and outdoor activities have always been effective remedies in Bell’s “pillbox.” On a recent afternoon, Bell and his wife Rebecca took their two sons mountain biking at Phil’s Trail complex. Liam, 10, and Emmett, 7, both wearing helmets with face protection, made sure their shoelaces were tied before taking to the pyramids and slopes of the slalom course. Keith Bell, who fell in love with bike riding when he was his sons’ age in his native Rochester, New York, tore ahead, pumping the bumps and lofting airs with a grace won from years in the saddle. Rebecca, equipped with her own dual-suspension bike, pumped along. In talking about their climbing and trekking adventures together, Rebecca flashed her wedding band, engraved with the mountains of Nepal’s Khumbu region. Keith proposed to Rebecca at Mount Everest’s base camp, where they had ended up after a 27-day hike. Nearby, Liam, who won his age division in the 2015 Oregon Enduro Series, a mountain bike race, toppled over on his bike. “I’m all right!” he assured his mother. “I just hit an oversized rock!”
Rebecca grinned. “‘I’m all right’ has become a mantra in our family,” she said.
A karmic call to service
Liam was born in 2006, two months premature. At one point, he had to be resuscitated, and his parents worried whether he had suffered brain damage. The Bells were living in Chicago, where Keith was taking his prerequisite classes to apply for PA school while working full time as a yoga teacher and massage therapist. The couple had health insurance, yet when Rebecca got pregnant, they learned their insurance didn’t cover maternity. The Bells were spared the $110,000 hospital bill. That same year, Illinois saw the passage of the Covering All Kids Health Insurance Act, a bill championed by then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, making children covered by Medicare.
Keith said, “I would have had to drop out of school to pay for that.”
Once Bell received his Master of Science from the University of New England’s physician assistant program in 2009, he felt a strong call to public service. Mosaic Medical, a Central Oregon nonprofit community health center system, was a good fit. It serves individuals and families regardless of income or insurance status, according to its website.
When he applied, Mosaic was expanding the clinic and hiring new staff using funding from a federal stimulus package signed into effect by President Obama.
“I’m somehow karmically tied to Obama,” Bell joked.
Base camp Bend
A longtime climber, Bell passed through Bend in 1997 on his way to Smith Rock. He met Rebecca at a Cup of Magic, a since-shuttered cafe. Bell was living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time. Small world: Rebecca was moving there to study yoga. She asked him for a ride. They’ve been together since. Keith Bell was already devoted to meditation, but Rebecca introduced him to yoga. His subsequent work as a yoga instructor eclipsed his intention to pursue medicine.
“Sometimes you meet someone, and you intermingle with their path and that can throw you off your own,” Bell said.
The Bells were living in Bend and considering opening a yoga studio when Keith experienced his epiphany at the Vipassana meditation retreat, sending them eastward. Three years later, they returned to Central Oregon — Keith toting his Master of Science physician assistant degree — because Bend seemed like an ideal place to raise children. Along with good schools and a network of friends, the Bells appreciate Bend’s access to skiing, mountain biking and climbing — activities they wanted for their children. When they were each 4 years old, Bell took his sons mountain biking on Whoops Trail. Now that they’re older and attempting rock jumps, their father advises them to first “check your gut — do you feel exhilaration or fear?
“Sometimes they decline to do it, and that’s fine, too,” he said. “That’s a part of refining their inner judgment.”
As for Rebecca’s path with yoga, the couple were delighted to learn the location in which she had envisioned a yoga studio was again available. Rebecca, with three partners, co-founded The Yoga Lab in 2013. Keith attends one of Rebecca’s classes once a week, as he did recently with Liam and Emmett. He splits his riding time between his mountain bike and his road bike as he trains for the 100-mile Cascade Cream Puff mountain bike race, which he intends to have completed earlier this month. Liam, when asked about his father’s prowess on a mountain bike, effused.
“I think (his riding) is really amazing. When I watch the pros race on TV, I think my dad could do the course easily. He might not get first, second or third place, but he might get sixth or seventh,” he said. Overhearing his son, Bell laughed. “It’s good he has a healthy view of me and doesn’t think I’m god,” he said.
Bell wondered whether his work as a physician assistant might lead him to neurosurgery, but he worried the 80-hour work weeks would compromise time at home. As a family practice specialist, Bell said he has found an ideal work-life balance. He loves what he does and he is glad to serve the community, but he has other passions. “I don’t want to just watch a video of my kids; I want to be there for my kids,” he said. “I feel like my presence is a resource that reaches far beyond any material stuff.” •