Well Being: New leader is a living example for school of 'health and well-being'

Mike Mittelman, head of Salus University in Elkins Park, at his daily workout. "Salus" means health and well-being.
Mike Mittelman, head of Salus University in Elkins Park, at his daily workout. "Salus" means health and well-being. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 30, 2013

Mike Mittelman, the new president of Salus University, believes strongly in the importance of a sound body for a sound mind.

During his three decades in the Navy, he ran a dozen marathons and participated in several Olympic-distance triathlons. A graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, the institution that evolved into Salus, he is frustrated that so few people are familiar with Salus, what it offers, and the exciting work it is doing not only to improve vision but also to enhance health care in a wide variety of realms.

"It's the best-kept academic secret in Philadelphia," says Mittelman, who retired as a rear admiral after serving in a dizzying variety of posts, including commanding the naval hospital on Okinawa and overseeing the U.S. relief response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Salus is the Latin word for health and well-being. It became the new name of the former Pennsylvania College of Optometry in 2008, as the college morphed into a university by shifting from its traditional focus on clinical optometry and substantially broadening its curricula and degree programs, adding, among other offerings, audiology, public health, orientation and mobility, vision rehabilitation teaching, physician assistant studies, low-vision occupational therapy, biomedicine, as well as an institute for multisensory research.

Here's something else you probably didn't know about Salus: Its reach is international. For years, the school has had partnerships with universities in Europe (Sweden, Norway, Spain, Germany) and Saudi Arabia to develop the optometric profession abroad and expand the scope of practice, offering master's and doctoral degrees in optometric science. Today, students typically learn the didactic material online and come to the Salus campus in Elkins Park to practice clinical skills for weeks at a time. Salus is now endeavoring to expand its influence in Asia, specifically China and India, and is exploring ways to help developing nations in Africa.

"Part of the mission of Salus is to improve the health and well-being of the world's citizens," Mittelman says, "and partnerships such as these are one of the ways we're able to do that."

Mittelman, who became president in July, calls Salus, with 1,100 students, "the largest, most progressive optometry school in the country."

"We're spring-loaded, rich in talent here," says Mittelman, who earned his doctor of optometry degree in 1980.

In those days, the Pennsylvania College of Optometry was in Oak Lane. In 1996, it moved to its current location on Old York Road in Elkins Park. The university now occupies several modern buildings equipped with the latest teaching technology. Mittelman's 10-year-plan: to make Salus "the leading provider of health-science professionals in the country."

To a lay visitor, one of the most impressive facilities is the fitness center, where Mittelman shows up early in the morning to use the treadmill and elliptical trainer and lift free weights. He gets some form of exercise every day of the week. He swims, stretches (his nemesis), and on weekends runs along the Wissahickon (while his wife, Tanis, walks) or rides his composite bicycle on the Schuylkill River Trail. (When he lived in Hawaii and Washington, he routinely cycled to work.)

"I can't sit still," he says. "I'm always moving."

At 60, he could pass for 40. The married father of three daughters is trim and lean - 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, 32-inch waist, 11 percent body fat, pulse of 52. For years, he has been taking a minimum dose

of cholesterol-lowering medication, which has cut his LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or "bad cholesterol") in half.

He began running daily to relieve stress at Jacksonville University, where, as an undergraduate, he studied biology and thought of becoming a dentist, until his roommate's father acquainted him with the marvels and rewards of optometry.

Exercise became an obsession during Mittelman's four years at his first duty station in Cherry Point, N.C. There, he did plenty of push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups and fell in with an enthusiastic group of marathon fanatics. After finishing his first, the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, in 4:31, Mittelman "felt dead." The weather didn't help - cold, raw, sleety. But that didn't deter Mittelman from tackling the Marine Corps Marathon the following fall. When he crossed the finish line in 3:41, he was "thrilled."

Despite surgery for meniscus tears in both knees, he continues to run, though more moderate distances and at a more moderate pace. No more marathons are in his future, but he is eager to try the Broad Street Run.

" Salus means health and well-being. As a health-care provider, you have to live it," Mittelman declares. "It should be your first priority. You've got to take care of yourself so you can take care of everything else.

"One of my obligations as president is to be a picture of health. Exercise is built into my schedule, so students can see how much I value it. How can you talk about wellness if you're not doing it yourself?"

In the Navy, whenever Mittelman hired an aide, the candidate's physical fitness was a major factor.

"When I was a commanding officer, I challenged my staff that anyone who either beat me in the semiannual physical-readiness test or improved his score would get a long weekend off. By the end of my tenure, nearly 98 percent of my staff met all Navy physical-readiness standards. I did the same when I became the deputy surgeon general. I was always trying to present a good example of fitness and wellness, and I intend to continue."


For more information about Salus University, visit www.salus.edu.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact

Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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