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James R. Bell, MD, a Pioneer in Teaching Mindfulness and Compassion in Medicine at Geisel, Dies

James Russell Bell, MD, died Friday, May 19, from complications related to Parkinson's disease. He was 79 years old. 

A cardiologist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT for 41 years, during which he became chief of cardiology, Bell supervised medical residents, cardiology fellows, and ran a long-standing clinical cardiology elective for senior medical students at Geisel School of Medicine. He also spent more than 30 years teaching and advising medical students at Geisel as an associate professor, where he was named Clinical Teacher of the Year three times by graduating classes, and once as Basic Science Teacher of the Year. 

James Bell
James Russell Bell, MD

A practicing Buddhist and active member of Valley Insight Meditation Society, Bell was a pioneer in teaching mindfulness and compassion in medicine, he taught the Mindfulness in Medicine elective since 2001. In 2012 he was elected to Geisel’s Academy of Faculty Master Educators that honors faculty for their exceptional skills in, and dedication to, the education of students, residents, and colleagues. 

Delivering the eulogy during a memorial service honoring Bell, held at Geisel on June 3, his longtime colleague and friend Joseph O’Donnell, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and of psychiatry, described a man who loved clinical medicine and teaching. “Jim exuded love and it was easy to feel it when you were around him.” 

O’Donnell and Bell met more than 50 years ago when they first arrived at the VA Medical Center—O’Donnell as a house officer and Bell “a hot shot doctor of the heart … who knew that emotions and stressors could lay a heavy burden on it; when those heartfelt emotions were shared with others, the stressors on the heart could be unburdened.” 

Bell, whose deep-seated values and actions were in sync, exuded peacefulness, equanimity, and exceptional listening skills that defined him as a teacher. “He was a master at recognizing how emotions were burdening the hearts of his patients, students, colleagues, and friends and sought ways to help lift them off their struggling hearts,” O’Donnell said. 

A skilled pianist with a keen ear, when Bell taught students about heart murmur and sounds, “he played the music of the murmurs, closed his eyes, and used his hands like a maestro to illustrate the beat. He was in the zone, radiating peace, love, and joy. Jim would say that the music in what was being said told him whether a patient was depressed or hurting deeper than they were expressing,” O’Connell recalled.  

This ethos informed his teaching of cardiology and the innovative small groups in the course Health, Society, and the Physician, and On Doctoring at the medical school. He pioneered electives in mindfulness and coined the term heart rounds for the gatherings of students from all classes to build community and celebrate the milestones in their evolving journey to competency in the medical profession. 

“Jim loved students and they loved him. His non-judgmental ways brought out the best in them,” O’Donnell said. 

Chidi Chike Achebe MED ’96, recalls his former teacher and academic advisor as, “A kind and patient man, I remember spending hours in meetings with him receiving invaluable counsel on strategies to survive, and excel in medical school. Thank you, Dr. Bell.” 

Bell was a course director of the former Scientific Basis of Medicine of Cardiology; Year 2 coordinator for 10 years; advising dean and head of the Lucille Smith Society; and a long-time facilitator in the On Doctoring, Problem Based Learning, and Health, Society, and the Physician courses. He was also a former member of the Medical Education Committee and former chair of the Intern Advisory Committee.

Duane Compton, PhD, dean of the medical school and a fellow member of the Academy of Faculty Master Educators, said of Bell, “I knew him through my leadership role for the fall term biochemistry course in the MD curriculum, and interacted with him on the medical education committee. I benefitted from observing his student-centered approach.” 

“I worked with Jim for many years when he ran the old Scientific Basis of Medicine program about the cardiovascular system. He was an excellent clinician and during those many years fully committed to leading and helping to teach the course in a way that resonated with the students,” said Professor Emeritus of Medicine David Nierenberg, MD. “He loved teaching and treated each student with respect. 

“Jim included case-based teaching in his sessions and pushed for more small group sessions leading to the implementation of problem-based learning at the medical school. All in all, Jim was a wonderful colleague and teacher, a clinician well loved by his patients, and a strong advocate for our medical students who loved him. I was saddened to learn of his death, but thinking about my many past interactions with him makes me smile.”