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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oregon chaplain leaves sermons and hymnals behind for messy reality of hospital work

By Tom Hallman Jr. The Oregonian The Oregonian

Thomas Vice, a man of deep faith, found a career as a pastor in the religious world. But he no longer preaches a Sunday sermon from the pulpit or crafts an Easter service message. He has traded in the church, with its traditions and structures, for the gritty reality of a hospital, a place where things change hourly and patients grapple with life, suffering and fear.

“There’s the real world and then the hospital world,” said Vice, lead chaplain at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham. “The conversations I have and the events I deal with will never happen outside of the hospital.”

Vice said senior pastors of metropolitan area churches have told him they can’t understand why he left the institutional world of the church to work in a hospital. He has a simple answer: “I’ve done everything a pastor wants to do in a church. I loved it all. But this is where I belong.”

Vice, 46 and married with four children, joined Portland’s New Song Community Church as a parishioner when he was 15. He later became a part-time youth pastor there and then decided to make pastoral work a career. He eventually earned a Master of Divinity degree at Portland’s Western Seminary. He served as pastor at churches before discovering a new spiritual path while watching a man die.

His wife’s grandfather was in hospice. Vice sat bedside with the man for six weeks and was there when the end came. Vice said the experience made him realize he wanted to be with people during life’s great transitions.

The program draws spiritual leaders of all faiths, said Jill Rowland, leader of the program and a clinical chaplain with Legacy for eight years. Rowland, a certified pastoral educator is also a board certified chaplain. The program, she said, has students learn hospital spiritual care through instruction and feedback while working with people in crisis.

“So, some people’s faith may be about being a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu,” she said. “Some other people’s faith may be about the natural world or philosophy because that is to which they give their heart.”

When Vice finished the program, he was hired by Portland’s Legacy Health. He completed a year residency as a chaplain at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center Northeast before moving to Mount Hood Medical Center, where there are 150 beds and he oversees a staff of five. His team sees about 350 patients a month.“I am grounded in my Christian faith,” he said. “That informs my view. But I deal with patients who have different faith beliefs or no faith beliefs. Some people find meaning not in religion, but in their connection to nature, art or music.”

In addition to working with patients, Vice also helps doctors and nurses.

“I sat with a nurse who tearfully described the circumstance around the death of a patient,” he said. “The patient had a young child present who was the same age as the nurse’s child. Witnessing the death and the child crying was overwhelming for the nurse as they thought of their own child and the terrible loss of losing their parent at such an early age.”

Vice finds the hospital to be ground zero in matters of faith.

“We all may not be religious, but we are all deeply spiritual,” said Vice. “We’re all trying to get a sense of what’s happening in our lives and asking those existential questions. In the hospital every person is on equal footing no matter what faith system they ascribe to or what you don’t ascribe to.”

Vice does not preach.

He listens.

“They tell me things they would never tell their priest or pastor or rabbi,” he said. “They keep it real. They ask why God would do this to me?”

Vice has no simple answer.

“I use sustained emphatic inquiry,” said Vice. “When I walk into a patient’s room, I am looking at their life, their story and trying to understand who they are. It’s not as important as to what’s happening to the person, but to learn the meaning the person gives as to what’s happening.”

What spring offers is renewal.

“It is Easter and Ramadan and Passover,” he said. “In all faiths, spring is seen as a celebration that death is not the end. Whether life is the buds coming up through the soil, or skies that are clearing, we recognize that death is not the end. Death is just part of the cycle of how we move through life.”

During the Easter weekend, Vice travels between two worlds, one deeply religious, the other secular. He plans to go to the Grotto on Good Friday to walk the Stations of the Cross, and then attend an evening service. He will attend a Sunday morning Easter service at Eastside Imago Dei Community. And then he will temporarily leave that world behind to have lunch with his family and hunt for Easter eggs.

The hospital was closed to outsiders during the pandemic. Vice said he sat bedside, holding the hands of patients, many who were dying, because their loved ones could not be with them.

“I have to be able to hold with them, maybe even hold them, in faith and hope,” he said. “I am allowed to be present with someone’s suffering. My faith has not been shaken. It continues to expand.”

Vice said patients are not looking for answers.

“They are verbalizing what they are feeling,” he said. “They found someone who has the time to sit with them. One patient recently told me that his anxiety was burying his hope. That is an incredible way of diagnosing yourself. It is so true. For most of us, life is about avoiding pain and suffering. In a hospital, a medical crisis quickly turns into a spiritual crisis.”

In those moments, Vice learns about the patient in the bed.

“We talk,” he said. “Where have they found hope in the past? What has gotten them through events in the past? Where has the divine and the mystery come in the past?”

Vice said he does bring a religious mission when he walks into a patient’s room.

“I have a commitment to the patient,” he said. “To meet them where they are at in their life.”