A Colorful Path

Children’s of Alabama chaplain, Brett Vebber, found his own way to do God’s work in a place that felt strangely like home.

By Rosalind Fournier

On the day a pastor is ordained, you would expect friends, family, and church members to be in attendance to observe this holy occasion. You might not expect clowns. “Some people in the church were looking around like, ‘What are they doing here?’” recalls Brett Vebber, a hospital chaplain at Children’s of Alabama. “But I knew that there would be children there, so I hired the clowns to come.”

It was an unusual gesture, but then, Vebber’s journey — in his career and in life — has been anything but ordinary. Born in 1970 in New York, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and doctors advised his parents to move down South, where it was believed the humidity would improve their baby’s chances of survival. Taking that advice to heart, they moved Brett and his two older siblings to Alabama. Vebber says the humidity theory has since been debunked, but the move had the side benefit of bringing him to Children’s, a place he describes as “an awesome place to be sick.” Long before he ever considered a career as a chaplain anywhere, much less at Children’s, Vebber was a patient, from the tender age of one. In a very real sense, working here has brought Vebber’s story full circle.

As Vebber was growing up, the hospital was his home away from home. Patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited, chronic disease affecting the lungs and digestive system, must have their breathing checked regularly, and when their lung capacity tests poor, protocol mandates two weeks of inpatient treatment. For Vebber that meant regular hospital stays. Lots of his childhood friends and memories originated at Children’s — playing in the playrooms, visits from friendly volunteers in costume, visiting other patients’ rooms for movie night (before concern about infection put a stop to that practice) and having water-balloon fights with the other kids.  “Frequent flyers” and “professional patients” were his pet names for the others who spent as much time here as he did. He remembers the doctor who saw how much he missed playing baseball and brought him a Roger Maris baseball card. “This hospital seems to have a special place for families with children who are hurting and feeling helpless,” Vebber says. “They’re sensitive to the unique needs of pediatric patients and look for ways to incorporate play therapy whenever possible. And the families trust that the staff truly cares what they’re going through.”

When his health allowed, Vebber was able to experience a lot of the same joys of childhood his siblings, who did not have CF, did, like playing sports and participating in other outdoor activities. But these times were punctuated by long hospital stays when he required inpatient treatment. (In what can only be called terrible luck, Vebber was also hospitalized as a seven-year-old when a car slid into him during a rainstorm, resulting in a broken arm, collarbone and several ribs.) He had to make up a lot of schoolwork due to his frequent absences. Even during the times he was feeling good, he still had to contend with the grim prognosis for CF sufferers. He remembers attending a summer camp for CF kids when a local television station came to do a feature. “That evening, we watched ourselves on the news only to hear the broadcasters telling us this terminal illness kills the average (CF patient) during the teenage years,” he recalls. “You could have heard a pin drop in the room.” His age at the time: 13.

As an adolescent, he averaged four hospital stays a year. He says his frustration with being sick led him to rebel during this period — he even had a few scrapes with police — but he never gave up hope, a value he says his mother and father instilled in him from a young age. Looking back, he believes the suffering built character and strength to continue fighting for a future, even one he could not predict.

Vebber graduated from Jacksonville State University with a degree in sociology and, like most graduates, career aspirations. But before he began a job search in earnest, his parents urged him to apply for disability benefits out of concern that it would be hard for him to obtain health coverage otherwise, no small matter when his prescriptions alone ran about $2,000 a month. He began receiving Social Security disability payments, a course which seemed to exclude the possibility of getting a job and earning any substantial income.

He was disappointed but decided to make the best of it by embarking on a career of volunteer work, first at Marannook, a Bible-centered camp near Auburn. “I was there for two or three years, and they wanted me to stay,” Vebber remembers. “But I told them I felt that God had given me a heart for helping the sick. They asked what I wanted to do with that, and I said I thought I’d like to volunteer at Children’s Hospital.”

The hospital set him up with a desk and computer so Vebber could start doing their newsletter and website dedicated to CF. “That helped me gain a vision at a time when it seemed I was not able to work,” he says. Wanting to approach his work as a type of Christian service, he asked Wales Goebel Ministry to oversee his work, giving him greater accountability and the chance to learn the ministry. Vebber also decided to go back to school and earned a master of divinity degree from Birmingham Theological Seminary. (He also holds a Master’s in counseling).

Vebber says he had become a Christian in 1990, a turning point when he began to see his circumstances in a different light. “When I was sick growing up, I often asked God, ‘Why me?’” he recalls. “But in college I started asking, ‘Well, why not me?’ I began to realize that nobody loves to suffer, yet because we live in a broken world, we all have to suffer. I’m no exception.” Whenever possible he went to hear Christian speakers and pepper them with questions, such as, what would you say to a child who is battling cancer? “All of the answers had to do with, ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘It’s not right.’ Or, ‘We are not made for this world.’ There were a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of good answers but had a lot of compassion, and I felt like when they didn’t have an answer, it resonated the best.”

As he volunteered at Children’s, he increasingly ventured out of his office setting into the hospital’s many activity rooms, playing with kids, talking with them about their questions and concerns and leading parent support groups. In 2002, his associates asked if he’d ever considered becoming a chaplain. He said he’d never thought about it, but the idea intrigued him, and he was promptly hired. He’d gone from patient to volunteer to chaplain, uniquely qualified to provide empathy to kids and families in the throes of fear, despair, doubt and sometimes even tedium as they navigate the difficult terrain of chronic or life-threatening illnesses and injuries.

“I’m not here to tell my story,” he stresses. “But I can use it to relate to how someone else is feeling. A lot of people look at support as trying to pull somebody out of the pit, but support is really about getting in the pit with them.”

He says that when families ask him why God has allowed their suffering, he draws from the answer that has always struck him as the only honest one: I don’t know. “I tell them that I have a lot of questions to ask God when I see Him, too,” Vebber says. “But I can also tell them that we are not alone. He is with us and suffered before us, and that’s why He has given us family and community to help bear the weight.”

Vebber adds that sometimes uncertainty isn’t about bad things that might happen, but also about unexpected blessings. Though he once thought CF would keep him from having a career, he now has the job of his dreams. He is happily married to Tracy Real Vebber, and they have a five-year-old son, William. He is now 41 years old. He expects he will eventually need a lung transplant, but he’s not there yet, though he jokes that his son can already outrun him. “It’s hard, but as much as I want to be ‘normal,’ my perspective and that of my family and friends is that normal is in the eyes of the beholder,” he says. “I heard it said best when a social worker told me about going into a room and seeing a child look at his mom and ask, ‘Does my brother have CF?’ And the mother said no. ‘Well, does Daddy have CF?’ No. ‘Do you have CF?’ And the mother said, ‘Eventually, I’ll have something. We just don’t know what yet. We know that you have CF, and we know how to treat that.’ I thought that was a great perspective, saying, you know, no one can live forever.

“If you were to ask my wife how I have changed her life, she would probably say she feels more blessed with what she has,” Vebber says. “So when we sit down every few years to look at hope to accomplish, we’re not just looking at my bucket list. We’re looking at hers. That’s really what CF teaches you and the people around you — to cherish life and value the time you have.”

4 Responses to “A Colorful Path”

  1. This Article is so wonderful and inspiring. My son, who also has CF, considers Brett a friend.
    Great Works You Do, Brett.

    Mary Blessing

  2. gloria boawright says:

    i appreciate your comments and that my friend with cf, cade hovater has been inspired by you. my best
    friend had a daughter to die of cf at age 6 in spite of the exercises her mother faithfully did with
    her. we pray that the research moves forward until a permanent cure is found. great strides have been
    made in the last 40 years. God bless you and your family and the cf children and adults as they continue
    the fight. my prayers are with you. I was a victim of polio at age 18 months and spend a lot of my teen
    years in a children>s hospital and you make a lot of friends while you are there.

  3. N. Pekera says:

    He performed the marriage ceremony for my daughter’s wedding. One of the nicest people you will ever meet

  4. Eileen Kent says:

    Hi Brett,
    Couldn’t be prouder of my nephew -great article! You have accomplished so much in your life and are an inspiration to me and my family. Valerie is visiting here now. Only wish you, Tracy, and William were here also! Your dad is busting buttons and couldn’t wait to share this article. Can I share it on my facebook page?
    Love you lots!

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