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The Catalyst

OT educator remembered for her spirit, dedication to many

By Mikie Hayes
Public Relations

Dr. Maralynne Mitcham, left, receives a bouquet of flowers from Health Professions Dean Dr. Lisa Saladin at her endowed lectureship event. photos provided

There are special people who even in the face of personal adversity make the world a better place for others. Maralynne Mitcham was one of those rare people. For 30 years, colleagues at MUSC more than enjoyed working and spending time with the College of Health Professions’ beloved professor, they looked forward to it. A cheerful and bigger-than-life personality, she made others feel special, valued, included. Even through an email, you could imagine the twinkle in her eyes and lilt in her voice as she closed with “Cheers from MM tap dancing on her iPad.”

On Oct. 17, MUSC lost her following a valiant battle with ocular melanoma.

Faculty, staff and friends knew the day was drawing near for MM, as friends and colleagues called her, but she chose to work up until the week before she passed, not wanting to give up or give in. She drew strength from colleagues and students who meant so much to her. That was typical of the special brand of grit she knew she had and showed to the world.

In April, Maralynne had been honored with the prestigious Eleanor Slagle award by the American Occupational Therapy Association, the highest award the organization gives. Part of the award called for her to deliver a lecture at the annual meeting the following year. When word got out that she would be presenting, she drew an audience of 3,500, the event’s largest turnout ever.

Dr. Mitcham was the 2013 recipient of the Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lectureship Award and gave her lecture at the event in Baltimore.

As a result, she was featured in the April 18 issue of The Catalyst. While she was being interviewed for that article, she happily shared fun anecdotes about her yearlong preparation and the event. She wanted to make sure the article would reflect the joy and pride she felt for having hit a home run delivering her “Education as Engine” lecture at the Slagle event and highlight the hoopla that surrounded it, like the bright blue hair pieces everyone wore at the event, and the bracelets everyone wore back at home, to show support and solidarity for her. Mitcham was known for sporting brightly–colored hair extensions.

And while she spoke candidly about her illness, and what she considered to be the inevitable, it was a subject she preferred not to have mentioned in the article. Several times while speaking openly she would say, “Oh, I don’t want that in this article. Save it for the next one.”

I could think of only two other possible articles that she could be referring to, so I asked her, “Maralynne, do you mean an article about your upcoming endowed lectureship at MUSC?
She simply replied, “No.” We both knew what she meant.

“I want people to remember my smile and not my cancer,” she said.  “It was interesting,” she explained of her lecture. “I loved every bit about this, but I had never thought about things that way before. I think about things a bit different now. It helps me sort out issues. I spoke to people in a very different way — probably, I was more personally charged. The content was very personal for people.”

She wanted also to be remembered for making things happen for a greater purpose. “One of my greatest strengths,” she shared, “is I can take my talents and strengths and do the most good at the right time. What I’m able to do is create synergy for more than one constituent group’s benefit because I try to create ‘win–wins.’ Not to sound Polyannaish, but you can orchestrate things that benefit more than one group of people and make quite the difference.”

Having lived to deliver her Slagle lecture, which had been a real concern for her, she set her sights on attending the second annual Maralynne D. Mitcham Lectureship that took place on July 18. While she was not feeling well enough to make a formal presentation, as she had the inaugural year, she was front and center, welcoming guests and greeting all with her signature warmth and genuine smile. Described as the day’s celebrity, people scrambled to have the chance to hug and talk to her before the lecture began.

Dr. Maralynne Mitcham was joined by her husband, Chris Brumfield and family members during the July 18 Lectureship.

After the lecture, College of Health Profession Dean Lisa Saladin, Ph.D., P.T., presented her with a bouquet of flowers and thanked her for her generosity and vision in creating a series that would bring many influential leaders in occupational therapy to the college. Maralynne’s husband, Chris Brumfield, brother–in–law Clyde Brumfield and niece Jessie were there to celebrate her special day with her.

She explained why her endowment was so important. “I started a lectureship here at MUSC as a legacy gift to the college. I so love this college and all the wonderful people in it,” she said. “A lectureship is a very academic thing to do, and what we perpetuate is the knowledge of our field which is the criteria for global perspective.” When asked if people could contribute to her endowment, she said, “In the next article, if someone were to ask what I wanted for say, my birthday, I would say, ‘Please write a check to the lectureship fund.’”

Born on Dec. 13, 1949, in London, England, her love of the motherland greatly influenced her, from her contagious British wit to unfailingly enjoying her 3:00 “cuppa” afternoon tea. According to colleagues, she worked tirelessly to make life fun and the little things celebratory, like affectionately referring to her office as the “pink palace” and writing the Pirate’s Newsletter, an account she kept of the procedures and clinical trials she endured, to keep friends apprised of how she was faring.

She served on nearly 50 university committees during her three decades on the faculty, gaining many friends and admirers along the way. Serving as the chair of the Occupational Therapy Department, assistant dean of the College of Health Professions, assistant dean for research, and chair of the Department of Health Professions were just a few of her many  accomplishments. During our interview, Maralynne shared that Ray Greenberg, M.D., Ph.D., then MUSC president, thanked her for being the principal voice on campus for interprofessionalism and building it to a level of prominence.

That compliment touched her and fueled her work.

During her distinguished career she won numerous awards, none so meaningful as her Honorary Life Membership Award, which she earned after serving for a year as president of the American Occupational Therapy Foundation and the Eleanor Clark Slagle Award. Her Slagle lecture will be published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy's December issue.

In tributes to her in her memory book, she is described as captivating, inspirational, gracious, and a blessing to so many. She is called mentor in nearly every message, and to her students, she was that professor who made all the difference in their lives and careers.

Dr. Mitcham was known as an active and supportive mentor to many of her students. Here, Mitcham is joined by several of her MUSC occupational therapy students at the Slagle Lecture in Baltimore.

Many who were close to her are understandably grappling with their loss.

Saladin said, “Maralynne represented the heart of the College of Health Professions. While she was an internationally recognized scholar and educator, I will remember her most for her ability to make everyone she met feel special and for her selfless acts of compassion and kindness towards others. Some time ago Maralynne told me that she wanted to continue to come in to work until she was truly incapacitated because being around her University family kept her will to live intact. However, recently as she continued to lose weight and to visibly deteriorate, she asked me if her presence at work was causing distress to our faculty and staff (who adored her). She told me that she would rather give up her work and all that it meant to her if her presence was causing others to suffer. That is just one example of her willingness to put the interests of others first. While this might sound trite, being around Maralynne made you want to increase your awareness of, your compassion for, and your connection with others.”

Nancy Carson, Ph.D., OTR/L, assistant professor and assistant dean for academic and faculty affairs in CHP, recalls their special relationship: “Maralynne always made you feel like you were one of the most important people in her life. She was a wonderful and compassionate mentor; the most influential one I have had in my career. She encouraged me to see the big picture and stretch my boundaries professionally.  I will miss her tremendously and I am very grateful for the many lessons I have learned from her.”

Peter Bowman, OTD, OTR/L, assistant professor and director of Admissions for the OT Division at CHP, remembers his long history with MM: “She treated everyone as special. She would personally bring a fellow Brit a cup of tea brewed for 3 minutes (the official correct amount of time) she had made at 3 p.m., halfway through a long afternoon of lab activities. When I was thinking of moving to Charleston to complete a master’s degree and she had only known me via one distance class I had taken with her, she insisted my wife and I stay over the weekend with her and her husband. We did move to Charleston with 8–and 10–year–old children. When we arrived we expected to be staying in a hotel until we found a new house. Maralynne and her husband were going on a trip to England at that time and insisted that we house sit whilst she was away. She was away for two weeks and my wife and I bought a house and moved into it by the time she returned. Ironically the house my wife and I bought was on the same street as her home.”

Dr. Mitcham is joined by former Health Professions assistant dean Dr. Becki Trickey, left and Dr. Ruth Patterson, professor emerita, College of Graduate Studies, in July.

K. Jackson Thomas, Ed.D., P.T., professor in the Division of Physical Therapy at CHP, shared his grief: “Dr. Mitcham was not only a close colleague, but was one of my closest friends. She was a most unique person and had a natural born wit that always came through, even during the last months of her terminal illness. During her long weeks of treatment at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and here at MUSC, she regularly sent clever and entertaining emails to her friends and colleagues that detailed her status and progress. The notes were called the Pirate News, and were so informative, but written with humor and an appeal that captured everyone’s sentiment and emotions. Maralynne will be dearly missed by all of us, and she was one of a kind that no will ever be able to replace. My heart is truly broken both by her illness and her passing.”  

DeAnna L. Adkins, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of Neurosciences in the College of Medicine and Health Sciences and Research in CHP, took time to reflect on her dear friend: “Looking through pictures of Maralynne from past birthdays, holidays or one of the many other gatherings, I tried to recall one specific poignant quote or witticism of hers to share.  Although she entertained us with many witty quips, impressions or limericks composed on the fly (accompanied by her signature jig, of course) or touched us with one of her many insightful comments, I realized that words are not how I best remember Maralynne.  Instead, I remember Maralynne embracing life through action. In each of the pictures I have of Maralynne she is slightly blurred because she was in constant motion either leading us in a rousing song, vigorously pulling a Christmas cracker, or running along the train tracks in the wee hours, as she said she loved doing as a child, waving my husband and me off as we rode away on holiday.”

Mary P. Mauldin, Ed.D., professor and executive director of the Office of Instructional Technology & Faculty Resources and associate director for education Office of Interprofessional Initiatives, mourns the loss of a dear friend: “Maralynne thought big and at the same time, paid attention to the details that made a big difference.  She always encouraged you to think conceptually, to synthesize diverse things together for a better solution, all the while offering you a cup of tea while you wrestled together over those big ideas.  Not only was she ‘wicked smart,’ but Maralynne had style. Her fashion sense, bold choice of colors of nail polish, not to mention a hint of a green, blue or red hair extension made you love her even more — who else would have the nerve?  Maralynne was fearless, a true lionheart and an example to us all to remember that, ‘This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often,’ from the Holstee Manifesto.”

Hazel Breland, Ph.D., OTR/L, assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Therapy, otherwise known by Mitcham as “Lady B” said, “Maralynne was faithful and reverential in her walk with God — she did not do it to be seen rather she lived to honor Him and all His creation. For everything that our beloved Maralynne Denise Mitcham did in her life — loving God, loving others, fostering humanity, and its capacity, leading the royal court of the College of Health Professions as well as an international band of pirates while living life to the fullest; I say she was a master. MM was the quintessential occupational therapist, educator, and scholar who added much to the academy as evidenced by her professional accolades, productivity, and reputation; yet, her crowns in glory will come from how she generously gave of herself as a mentor, artist, confidant, friend, humorist, and fashionista. Cheers, tootles, and big love, from Dr. Mitcham’s Lady B tap–dancing.”

Leslie Brady, CHP director of development said, “Maralynne’s unwavering commitment to education through her personal philanthropy is what initially brought us together… her stimulating and inspirational coaching is what kept us united.  For that, and so much more, I am forever grateful.”

Holly Wise, Ph.D., professor Division of Physical Therapy, College of Health Professions, shared a special friendship with Maralynne and will always have many fond memories of her: “One of the first lessons from Maralynne that I will always remember is the "power of three.” She once told me that three is a very spiritual number and when writing for emphasis, use three words to help frame a concept….and if you can alliterate, all the better.  The three words that help me to describe Maralynne and reflect on my relationship with her are merry, memorable, and magnanimous Merry: MM loved to have fun and celebrate special occasions.  She made the work environment a fun environment….I first met Maralynne in 1998, when as luck would have it, I was assigned the office next door to MM in the “Pink Palace.”  Even when we moved into our new digs, our offices remained near each other.  The Pink Palace was painted a pastel pink color as Maralynne did not enjoy the institutional color of the old Building C. Marilyn loved to give friends and family personalized nicknames like the Pink Palace crew. Memorable: From the power of three to her love of fashion, Maralynne is unforgettable! She loved fashion and knew the latest styles before anyone else did. She loved beautiful materials that were soft to touch and swirled. I think the swirling goes back to her childhood days and she wore dresses that swirled! She loved fabrics that were a little wild (animal prints were some of her favorites) and loved to add pops of color with accessories.  Whenever I see flower pins to wear on lapels, British green toenails, or blue hair extensions I will always think of MM. She was the “Queen of Sticky Notes”…a technique that she used when she was “doing thinking” …they would be tacked up all around the room! Magnamious: Maralynne can be described as generous of spirit. She is the golden rule personified and extended to others what she wanted for herself.  She was kind to all and reached out to connect with others in a personal and genuine way.  She would deliberately make time to connect, mentor,  and demonstrate her connection with you by pouring you a cup of tea, sharing a sweet with you, making you lemon curd for Christmas, remembering and asking about your family members, rubbing your tired shoulders. The list goes on and on…..And now "the power of three" represents the eternal peace that MM has found with the “Big Three," she said.

As her friend and colleague Thomas said, “It’s just now really beginning to sink in that she’s gone. We had her funeral service on Saturday morning, and that really brought us all to reality. She will never be replaced.”

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the MUSC Foundation with a note specifying the Maralynne D. Mitcham Lectureship (CHP) Fund, 18 Bee Street, MSC 450, Charleston, SC 29425-4500.

October 30, 2014



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