Meeting Christ at 'The Mount'

The Eucharist gives nurse Nick Schoen the strength to face suffering and death with peace

By Kevin Birnbaum

Nick Schoen deals with a lot of loss each day. As a “neighborhood coordinator," or nurse manager, at Providence Mount St. Vincent, an assisted living community in West Seattle, he oversees 42 residents with an average age of 89 or 90. They've lost a lot: their family members and friends, their homes, their mental and physical capabilities. And about once a week, on average, one of the residents loses his or her life.

Nick Schoen talks with resident Valeria Herman about her family.
Nick Schoen talks with resident Valeria Herman about her family. Photo: Stephen Brashear

"There's a lot of needs around me," Schoen said. "And oftentimes there's no easy answers."

Through all the residents' losses and needs, Schoen and his staff are there, trying to provide "a loving place for them to live in their last days."

"I don't think I do anything really great," he said, "but I think what I do is allow my heart to break a lot."

A life-changing book
As a kid growing up in a comfortable family in Bellevue, Schoen's experiences of heartbreak and loss were more often of the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" variety. He always loved sports, accompanying his dad to Seahawks, Mariners and Sonics games. At Seattle's O'Dea High School, he played golf and was a champion wrestler. He dreamed of becoming a sportswriter, and planned to major in communications when he entered Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1998.

But at Marquette, Schoen's plans began to change as he learned more about the theology and history behind the teachings and practices of his cradle-Catholic faith, especially the Mass.

"I felt like I was coming into my own in my faith and realizing how important the Eucharist was in my life," he said. "The Eucharist really became this nourishment, this food I couldn't not have."

By his sophomore year, he'd changed his focus to theology and psychology, and was even considering a vocation to the priesthood. That year, in a theology class, he read a book that changed the course of his life. In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes about L'Arche, the international network he founded of homes for people with disabilities. Schoen was especially touched by the parallels Vanier drew between the Eucharist and serving people in need.

"It is not possible to eat the broken Body of Christ in the Eucharist and to drink his blood shed for us through torture, and not open our hearts to the broken and the crucified people in our world today," Vanier writes in the book. Later, he adds, "The Eucharist and communal prayer can help us discover that we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus and that, in the end, there is no difference between those who are well and those who are sick and disabled. We are all handicapped before God, prisoners of our own egoism. But Jesus has come to heal us, save us and set us free by the gift of his Spirit."

Vanier's book, among others, inspired Schoen to spend the summer of 2000 in a L'Arche community in 
Trosly, France. In caring for the residents there — especially a man his own age with cerebral palsy — he came face to face with his own weaknesses, but he also found great satisfaction and joy.

"I fell in love with the work," he said. "It was much like a nursing assistant job — I was giving people baths every day, helping them to eat, doing all of their physical care, and I was hooked after that. I knew that I wanted to be involved in nursing, which had never been something that I'd thought of before."

Meeting Christ again
After graduating from Marquette, Schoen completed an accelerated nursing program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in 2003. He then returned to Seattle and took a job as a medical nurse at Swedish Medical Center.

There, he noticed a funny thing: While many of his older patients saw time at the hospital as a relatively pleasant respite from their nursing homes, those from Providence Mount St. Vincent always seemed eager to get back to "The Mount." Schoen felt called to work in such an environment, and took a part-time nursing position there in 2004. He was hired full time in 2007, and became a neighborhood coordinator in 2008. As a coordinator, he's further removed from the "dirty work" of nursing, but he still gets to know each of the residents, talking with them in their rooms and at meals.

Schoen's work entails a lot of compassion, in the sense of sharing in the suffering of the residents and their families. But he said he remains as energized to go to work each day as he was when he started, in part because of how much the residents teach him about the meaning of life.

The residents don't worry about the things the culture values: beauty, power, productivity. They have a different way of looking at the world, Schoen said, "and it's a more beautiful way, it's a more human way, really. The residents measure things more on the relationship, and how much love they're giving and receiving in a relationship."

They also make themselves vulnerable to the caregivers who must physically touch them and provide for their needs. "It's not easy to receive care … and yet they do it every day," Schoen said. It's taught him to be more open to other people, and to the "overwhelming love" that God has for each of us.

Schoen said his Catholic faith, especially the sacraments, is "the fuel" behind his work. He and his wife, Carina, and their five children age 6 and under (two are adopted) are members of St. Philomena Parish in Des Moines.

At The Mount, Schoen likes to begin and end each workday in the chapel right outside his office, praying before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Christ's constant presence gives him a sense of peace in the midst of daily challenges, death and grief.

"I run up against this feeling of exhaustion or being overwhelmed, and yet that's the very moment that I meet Christ again and know that he's with me and loving me, and that he's doing the work." 

November 22, 2013