Support Teams and Bears in the Woods

Farther up the trail from my first encounter, and much farther off through the trees, I eventually got a shot of the Mama Bear I'd seen earlier.

Farther up the trail from my first encounter, and much farther off through the trees, I eventually got a shot of the Mama Bear I’d seen earlier.

In doing support teams over the year and a half since I’ve been at UAB, I’ve met some fantastic people. But I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t gotten off my usual beaten path. It sort of reminds me of a discovery I made right after I ran into a bear once in the woods. Here’s the story.

A couple of years ago, I was hiking in the mountains of western Virginia (not West Virginia). I rounded a bend in the trail, crested a slight rise, and came to a long straight section. That’s when I saw movement through the trees and a black shape emerged from the shade to the left of the path about 75 yards ahead. There, stalking directly toward me, was a black bear. Almost immediately after she appeared, a cub entered the path behind her. She abruptly halted when she saw me. I couldn’t see her eyes, but her muzzle locked in my direction. She stood stock still. The cub behind her stopped, literally, in his tracks. I’ll admit it – I was scared.

A trail leading through the George Washington National Forest near Douthat State Park in Virginia.

A trail leading through the George Washington National Forest near Douthat State Park in Virginia.

Now, I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about human-bear encounters in the woods and in all of them, the human loses. My heart rate rose but I remained glued to my spot, knowing that fleeing would provoke a chase. I thought of that old story about the two guys who confront a bear in the woods and one turns to run. The other says, “You can’t outrun that bear,” to which the first guy replies, “No, I only need to outrun you.”

Suddenly, mama bear moved, in an impressive, fluid motion. I felt a blast of adrenaline, but she pivoted, and together with her cub, they took off up the path in the opposite direction – away from me.

Though I felt really relieved, I decided to wait a while before I proceeded. So I sat down on the side of the path. And that’s when I saw them: the most intriguing mushrooms I’d ever seen. They were orange and clustered around a fallen log. I looked to my left to be sure that the bear wasn’t sneaking up on me. Then I took up my camera and began shooting. I’m glad I did. I’d never seen anything like them, and haven’t since.

I'd never seen lichen like these in the woods.  Thanks to the bear that scared me off the path!

I’d never seen lichen like these in the woods. Thanks to the bear that scared me off the path!

It’s very much like that in our lives, isn’t it? As we walk our “paths” we come across things that raise our anxieties all the time. I have my work to do in the hospital, much of it administrative, so I spend quite a bit of time emailing, phone calling, meeting, going from office to office arranging things – you know, dashing along my professional trail making sure I take care of all that stuff I get anxious about.

But then I take time to step away from those fidgets in order to visit a patient, and so often, it’s like finding hidden treasure. As we converse, stories open up. Dreams and aspirations take shape. I learn about extended family and close friends and how the patient has cared and loved, sometimes over many years. In that time of talk, a person who was just a medical record number takes on color and texture, and enriches my own life.

That’s one of the benefits of joining a Support Team. You interrupt your mindless cruise through the world and step away from your habitual path. You become more “mindful,” and in the process, you come to know a new group of people in a much more significant manner. And when you spend some time listening and watching the world take on dimensions you didn’t know existed, you end up discovering that whatever “bear” you may have feared has already disappeared.

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