The Doctor Is In (unless he's out riding his bicycle)

They are tragedies that repeat themselves. The names change. The places change, but the consequential futility remains the same, chiming from heart to heart. One of them beats in the chest of Dr. Phillip Histand, Oregon State University director of Student Health Services (SHS).

He had read a newspaper article earlier in the day about an OSU student who was sentenced to prison for DUI. The student, who had planned on attending medical school, was celebrating the end of finals when he plowed into a motorcyclist parked on the side of the road, causing massive injuries.

It’s the type of incident that guides Histand in much of his work with SHS--to prevent rather than treat.

“The tragedy is that it could have been avoided,” Histand, 62, says. “That’s always been true, but I would say it’s worse now in terms of more students drinking more heavily.”

It doesn’t just happen at OSU. It happens everywhere, and its effects are not restricted to loved ones. It extends to those whose work is to heal the afflicted.

Doctors see life through shattered glass. They peer through cracks and jagged edges where illness, injury and well-being come to meet. Sometimes they can piece together shards, but other times it’s too late. The glass is beyond repair.

During his residency in Evanston, Illinois, Histand saw patients who were terminally ill, and his role was not only to treat but to comfort. Upon becoming a physician and, eventually, associate director at Northwestern University’s Student Health Services, he found a place in medicine that allowed him to serve the living, not the dying.

 “That’s when I found a home,” he says. “I realized that it was what I truly wanted to do, interacting with young people and helping them achieve a better life by preventing some of the things I saw in my residency.”

In 1989, after 10 years at Northwestern, Histand became a physician, then associate director for clinical services at SHS. In 2007, he became director. His responsibilities focus on policy and process for a department of about 70 people, including nine physicians and eight nurse practitioners. He oversees a program that each year provides service to 65 percent of OSU’s 25,000 students.

A branch of the Division of Student Affairs, SHS does outreach and provides treatment for everything from stuffy noses to urgent care. Students’ health concerns have changed over the years, Histand says and the greatest shift has been an increased need for mental health services.

“Anxiety and depression are in the top 20 diagnoses we see,” he says. “Students in general are more stressed by finances. Their support systems and families may not be as good as they were in years past, and students with more severe conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are finding it possible to attend school. Most of them do quite well, but they need our attention.”

At the top of the list of students’ health-related needs, he says, is contraception. About 2,500 women receive free birth control through the university’s participation in the Oregon Health Authority Contraceptive Care program for those whose insurance doesn’t provide coverage.

The emphasis on preventative care is reflected in Histand’s lifestyle. He has never been one for cars, preferring instead to travel by foot or bicycle. He has pedaled thousands of miles, some of them week-long journeys. Distance, however, is a sidebar. The true beauty is that he has ridden them one mile at a time at his own pace, not only for health and pleasure but for a greater good.

“We need to really build our cities and our lives around something other than the automobile as far as long-term care for the planet is concerned,” he says, “Resources are finite, but we live as though they are infinite.”

Phil HistandThe thing about bicycling is that there is a groove, a sweet spot when the knees pump in rhythm with the heart and lungs; and the spokes are true, and gravity is kind. Force and momentum create a dolphin’s grace, contrary to the force of will required for uphill climbs, or the sheer speed of descent.

It’s a feeling the three Histand brothers—Phillip, Gary and Ivan--chased four years ago. It was Ivan who suggested they share an adventure, so they settled upon a 200-mile ride on the San Juan Islands off the Washington coast.

In Histand’s memory, the first day unfolds in slow motion. In his rearview mirror, he saw Ivan stopped at the bottom of a hill. He and Gary waited for him to catch up. Sunlight was filtering through the trees.

Ivan pushed off and made it to the top of the hill. “We talked for a while then got back on our bikes, and he just toppled over.”

Histand kneeled and went from being a brother to a doctor. He performed CPR but could not revive a heart that had stopped suddenly and completely. Ivan was 56.

This summer, Histand and about 30 others who made that trip returned to the hill. It seemed steeper than before.  They placed flowers on the ground where Ivan had died, and prayers were said. Then they climbed on their bikes and continued riding. Sometimes bicycling is about riding toward, and sometimes it’s riding from.

The Histands grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, among rolling hills and stands of elm, oak, hickory and black walnut trees. His father worked at a hardware store and tended to a 29-acre farm.

It was a childhood molded by values of his Mennonite faith. For 15 years, while at Northwestern, the Histands lived in Reba Place, a community where incomes, resources and needs were shared among about 150 children and adults.

“Instead of two or three people per car, we had one car for 15 people. It was a rich lifestyle. We shared and supported one another instead of thinking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ It wasn’t about the individual, it was about community.”

Serving the community is a value passed on to his three children. Son Mark works for Habitat for Humanity, Martin for Project Peanut Butter, which feeds the hungry in Africa. His daughter, Maria Daly, followed her father’s lead and chose medicine. She is an emergency room nurse in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“He’s always been about community, being a team player,” Daly says. “I remember him volunteering in soup kitchens and always trying to find ways to help the less fortunate.”

Community to Histand ranges from planet to campus, and his role in the community has never been about money, it’s been about service, one that unfolds like a great ride: one mile at a time.

Mark, an environmental science graduate of Goshen College, has  worked at Habitat for Humanity in St. Louis for three years, two of them as a volunteer. His work is a direct result of lessons learned from his family.

“He stressed pacifism, responsibility and loving everybody, regardless,” he says. “He also stressed being responsible with money. We used to call him cheap, but I’m glad he taught us that.”

The common thread is the importance of serving community, which, for Histand, ranges from planet to campus. For him, life has never been about money, it’s been about service, one that unfolds like a great ride: one mile at a time.


Oregon State University Division of Student Affairs: http://oregonstate.edu/studentaffairs/

Oregon State University Student Health Services: http://studenthealth.oregonstate.edu/

Oregon Health Authority Contraceptive Care: http://studenthealth.oregonstate.edu/ccare

Reba Place: http://www.rebaplacechurch.org/home

Oregon State University Healthy Campus Initiatives: http://oregonstate.edu/deanofstudents/hci


Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki