Rubbing Shoulders with Greatness

“I engaged her in conversation and after a few minutes, it became apparent to me that I had come into the presence of a very sharp, well informed intellect.”

Doug Welle, from Birmingham Southern College, looked out of his tent somewhere in Turkey, 9,000+ feet above sea level. The thin, cold air bit him, but he braved it so he could take in the unlikely sight in front of him down at the archeological dig he and his crew had been working for about a month. The relief crew had arrived the previous night after a four hour drive that immediately followed a long flight from the States across Europe and into Ankara. Surely that crew needed rest and, indeed, all of them still slept – all but one.

Dr. Jeannette Runquist
Dr. Jeannette Runquist

She stood down by the dig site at a table spread with bones, a clip board cradled in one arm, a cup of coffee in the other, and an ash tray filled with cigarette butts on the corner of the table.

Welle shook his head to himself, gathered his coat, and walked to the dig. “Jeannette, is there anything I can do for you?”

She looked up from her notes and said, “I’m out of coffee. You could get me more coffee.” She went back to scribbling notes, then added, “Oh, and you can empty my ash tray.”

That was Dr. Jeannette Runquist, a biology professor at Birmingham Southern College, and according to Welle, because of her brilliant and disciplined professionalism as a crack archeologist, she single-handedly saved that archeological project from being shut down.

But that wasn’t all there was to Jeannette. In her capacity as part of the biology faculty at BSC, she carefully guided countless pre-med students into medical careers with incisive counseling. She taught biology without notes, prolifically writing the salient points on the chalk board. When students didn’t like her, it usually rose from the fact that she didn’t coddle them. She expected them to render their best, but she didn’t just tell them to perform, she gave them the tools to perform. Her course on comparative vertebrate anatomy (CVA to the students) drew rave reviews from some and, of course, derision form those who found it difficult. Indeed, she had a reputation for rigor and toughness that terrified students, but she also had a warmth and tenderness that conveyed love for those same students and especially for her subject. She evinced the essence of being a professor.

I met Dr. Runquist through my work as the Support Team Network Program manager at UAB Medicine. I had received a consult from the outpatient pulmonary unit of The Kirklin Clinic. When I went into the room, I saw an older woman, rather thin and somewhat slumped, tethered to an oxygen tank, with rapid, shallow breathing that typifies many patients nearing the end of the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking. I confess that my prejudices kicked in. I often find it somewhat difficult to conjure sympathy for someone whose symptoms derive from what I think are poor personal choices. Nevertheless, I engaged her in conversation and after a few minutes, it became apparent to me that I had come into the presence of a very sharp, well informed intellect.

After conversing with Jeannette for about 15 minutes about how our Pastoral Care department offers Support Team follow-up and training free of charge as an aspect of our mission, she surveyed the brochure I’d given her and said, “I’m impressed. This is holistic medicine.” She said she’d like to have a support team organized. When I left the room, I realized – again – that I really need to watch how I prejudge people when I first see them.

Through Jeannette, I met Megan Gibbons and Pete Van Zandt, neighbors and faculty colleagues in the department of biology at BSC. Megan and Pete had already logged hundreds of hours of support for Jeannette, visiting her in the hospital, bringing her meals, looking in on her, and running errands with and for her.  On one occasion, when Jeannette’s sister died, Megan and Jeannette traveled to Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina to take care of the sister’s affairs.  No wonder Jeannette identified Megan as the one who’d be a great team leader, and Megan hosted a team launch at her and Pete’s house.

As the support team gathered for orientation on that appointed evening, it became clear to me that quite a few people not only respected Jeannette, but loved her and wanted to demonstrate it. Through Megan’s exemplary organizational skills, they divided up how they’d respond to Jeannette’s needs, and by the time our intern, Kortney Sloan, and I left the meeting, they’d launched their care-giving game plan.

Katy Smith (r), a member of Jeannette's Support Team, speaks at Jeannette's memorial gathering at Birmingham Southern College.
Katy Smith (r), a member of Jeannette’s Support Team, speaks at Jeannette’s memorial gathering at Birmingham Southern College.

The team only lasted for a couple of weeks because Jeannette’s medical condition deteriorated rapidly. On November 7th she died after emergency surgery, surrounded by members of her support team. Megan remarked that because of the support team’s efforts, Jeannette saw how much and how many people appreciated and loved her. “And that,” she said, “made the whole thing worth it.” At the memorial gathering on the campus of BSC, standing among a throng of Jeannette’s colleagues, students, and family, I learned that when I met Jeannette, I had rubbed shoulders with greatness.

Recently one of my Facebook “friends” posted a selfie he took on a flight. Clearly in the background, right across the aisle was Bernie Sanders, one of the dozens of current candidates for president. My friend’s caption conveyed that he was impressed Sanders was flying coach, but it was also clear that if it had been just another ordinary bloke, he wouldn’t have taken the picture. There was something cool about rubbing shoulders with greatness, even if it resulted from a chance seating assignment. (In the interest of full disclosure, I would’ve done the selfie, too.)

The fact is, though, that my friend rubs shoulders with greatness every day, and the persons in the seats on HIS side of the aisle more than likely have stories that would astound him if he’d learn them. As my experience with Jeannette illustrates, this holds true for all of us. It’s one of the reasons why I do what I do with the Support Team Network. As we pull together to care for folks and get past the initial impressions by opening our ears and hearts to listen, we often discover rich personal histories only recently masked by a veneer of disease.

I’m extremely thankful that Jeannette Runquist helped unearth that Truth for me again. I feel myself tremendously fortunate to have met Jeannette, Megan and Pete, and a fantastic support team – and for the opportunity to recognize that I’ve been rubbing shoulders with greatness all along.

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