By LINDA STANLEY
Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital — June 15, 2004 shortly after 9 p.m.
Hospital administrator Chad Boore had been on the job all of nine months.
Hospital security officer Dan Thompson had been at his post six months.
And on this day both of them had to contend with an event that had never been reported before — in the world.
A 6-foot-five, 345-pound male bear walked deep into the hospital through the main entrance after he tripped motion sensors that opened the glass doors. Decisions had to be made and quickly.
Police officers came, the game warden came and the public converged on the scene. Lt. Karl Martin of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said at the time that the small-dose tranquilizers at their immediate disposal were meant to sedate domestic animals like dogs. He said they didn’t have ready access to what they’d need for this bear.
They also knew that the small dosage on hand probably wouldn’t do the job or could take a period of time for results even with multiple shots. It became apparent that the bear had to be taken out quickly for everyone’s safety. Surveillance photos from hospital security cameras show the big bear walking near a corner beside the waiting room for what was then the ICU unit. Oblivious people are standing near the door.
Then a woman spied the bear and screamed. Thompson heard that scream as he was walking a distance away, preparing to shut the hospital to visitors for the evening.
He headed toward the scream. On the way, he locked the hallway nursery doors and, as he turned — in an 8-foot hall — he met this nearly 7-foot bear. “Wasn’t much room left,” he recalled recently.
Thompson is a retired military veteran with service in Vietnam. He had moved with his wife from Cocoa, Florida to be near their adult children who lived in the area. And he had gotten the job of security officer at the hospital, where he still works today.
Thompson remembers not being scared but being “very concerned.” He said it was not a time to be afraid or make irrational decisions. He thinks his military training may have kicked in.
At any rate, Boore said, “Dan was the hero of the night.”
As Thompson met the bear and quickly surveyed the options, he realized the newborn nursery was very close.
“There were five babies and five mommas,” he said. “No way in heck was I gonna let that bear back there.”
The woman’s scream had startled the bear, and he’d turned toward some stairs and a back hallway, which was “where he found me,” Thompson recalled.
“We had maybe 10 to 15 minutes before that bear was going to head toward the nursery,” he said.
Thompson saw the door to an office between them was open. He made a few moves that got the bear to go through the doorway, then quickly shut the door and called for assistance.
In those days, many people had police scanners and monitored goings-on. It didn’t take long for word to get out that a bear was in the hospital and for a crowd to gather.
Meanwhile inside, officers, including the game warden, were making a difficult decision. Sheriff’s Deputy Riley Hodges was chosen for the job and dispatched the bear with his 12-gauge shotgun through an area opened up in the office door by removing the glass.
Thompson said the bear was moving about inside the office, in and around a partition realizing he was trapped.
The bear went down with the first shot, then the officer went inside and used his service revolver to make sure the risk was gone. It was over in about an hour.
An injured, mad and disoriented bear would have been hard to contend with, Martin said.
The game warden noted back then that it was true the bear was confined in a small office, “but an angry bear could’ve torn out the glass window or knocked down the office door pretty easy.”
He said the safety of patients and hospital staff was the consideration. More patient rooms were just down the hall.
It turned out Martin had just left the hospital after visiting his father who was a patient. So he was able to get back quickly to assess the situation. Had the bear been outside or even near an outside exit, he noted, it would have been an entirely different story. The bear could likely have been forced away from the hospital, tracked and various options taken. But as it was, people’s lives were potentially in immediate danger.
“If I had that decision to make again, I’d do the same thing,” Martin said.
Not that the decision didn’t come with repercussions from the public — not only locally but also from all over the U.S. and many foreign countries. Thompson said he “got really tired of the media.” He received messages, calls and even threats from people around the world who did not think anyone involved had made the right decision.
Martin recalled that there was only a small window of opportunity to shoot the bear. “Most of the time, it was walking around behind an office partition.” He said it was just a matter of time before the bear realized he had no way out and became extremely agitated.
Meanwhile, Boore, as hospital administrator, had gotten the word about the bear. He said that it was hard to get there because the streets were full of the curious. He had been called at home by Emergency Department Dr. Charlie Lane who said, “Hey Chad. Sorry to bother you but there’s a bear in the hospital.”
TV crews and other news media had arrived by then. Boore said he tried to calm folks upset about the bear being shot, explain the seriousness of the situation and generally defend everyone’s actions. His hospital superiors were not that happy with it and became less happy as media attention kept coming. He appeared on “Good Morning America” and was interviewed by all manner of news people. They wanted to know why the bear was shot and what he thought about it.
Boore recalled his hospital superiors reminding him over and over again that the hospital wanted to be known for treating patients, not for having a bear shot. He said he supported taking care of the patients, the public and the workers in the hospital that night the best way possible. By the time he got to the hospital, the bear was dead.
He also said the fallout was not kind. He got so many angry emails, letters and phone calls that he finally enlisted the aid of local news reporter Morris Stephenson to write “the facts” about the incident.
“After that story came out,” Boore said, “I sent copies to some of the foreign papers and people who had been upset. I actually got an apology from one who said they did not know the real story. All it said in the international media was basically ‘a bear walked into a hospital Rocky Mount, Va., and was shot dead by authorities.’ ”
He found it strange that so many members of the public seemed more concerned about this wild bear than about human lives. He said he was as understanding as he could be, but thought it was important that people know as much about the actual event as possible. Once Stephenson wrote his story for the local paper, the noise quieted, Boore said. “He really did us a favor.”
Boore noted that many people had stories about the bear — seeing him around town earlier and even outside the hospital before he gained entry.
“This story took on a life of its own,” he said.
T-shirts appeared and stories about this unusual event put Rocky Mount on the international map. Orders for the T-shirts, produced by Blue Ridge Traditions magazine, came from as far away as Germany and Australia.
A couple months after the incident, Boore came into his office to find the bear’s head properly prepared by a taxidermist and sitting in his chair. He displayed it in his office until he left for another hospital administration job after about three years at Franklin Memorial.
“I go to a few medical conventions a year and other places,” he said. “Everybody in health care knew this bear story. I couldn’t go anywhere without it coming up, and it still does.”
When he left, he took the bear’s head with him. He said he suspects the local hospital bosses were glad.
Boore said he enjoyed his time in Franklin County but noted that his family is in Illinois. When the opportunity came up, he applied and got a job closer to his original home. He displayed the bear’s head at his new office until a short time ago when he was promoted and got a new office with virtually no wall space. So he took the mounting home.
Recently, Boore’s father was approached at his own job by a man who remembered the bear story and wondered if the younger Boore still had the head. Upon learning Boore still possessed the head, the man offered to buy it, at which time Boore’s wife advised, “The bear needs to go home.” Afterward, Boore contacted Franklin County Historical Society.
Boore delivered it to the museum exactly 15 years after the bear walked into the hospital next door. The bear’s head and some of the surveillance photos from the night on the prowl can be viewed for a limited time in the museum’s research library at 460 South Main St., Rocky Mount.
For more information visit franklincountyvahistoricalsociety.org.
Thompson was one of the first visitors. “We meet again,” he said to the bear’s head.