Retiring doctor Thomas Steele could be called the founder of Samaritan Health Services’ Palliative Care, but if you know his history, he could also be called Good Samaritan’s Doogie Howser.
On weekends, as a youth, Steele was occasionally found in Good Samaritan by his father’s side helping plaster casts or suturing a patient. When he started his private practice, Steele said he fielded questions from the public about whether he was old enough to be a doctor.
“I got that I was too young to be a doctor for a while,” said Steele. “I’ll take that as long as I can get it.”
Steele’s father, Dr. Robert “Bob” Steele, was a renowned orthopedic surgeon who performed the second total hip replacement in the state of Oregon and the first total knee replacement at Good Samaritan. The elder Steele retired as the chief of staff after more than 35 years of service.
“I grew up in Good Sam and would follow my dad into the ER when I was a teenager,” said Steele. “I scrubbed in surgeries with him, that got me started down the medicine track.”
“I would say that he allowed me to do things that a medical student would be allowed to do,” Steele added. “He taught me how to tie sutures, he let me hold the retractor, but I was not doing any cutting or anything like that.”
While growing up in Corvallis, Steele played the clarinet and saxophone in groups including the Corvallis Youth Symphony. After graduating from Corvallis High School, his life took a different path. Steele studied archeology at Oberlin College in Ohio, worked at a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Seattle, worked at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago and even had a four-month stint as a sculpture’s apprenticeship under the tutelage of Norman Rockwell’s son, the late Peter Rockwell.
“I kind of went through one of those trying to figure out what the heck I wanted to do and ended up taking a couple of years off and then gravitated back towards medicine,” Steele said.
After graduating from Duke, Steele established a practice in McMinnville. Soon he was splitting his time between Corvallis and Yamhill County. Eventually Barry Smith recruited Steele for a full-time position working in the same emergency department he had assisted as a child.
Both of Steele’s parents left lasting impacts on Good Samaritan. Steele’s mother, Emily, was a stained glass artist who designed and built Good Samaritan’s Chapel windows. The glass in the chapel is actually a three-dimensional mosaic, a technique Emily perfected at her home studio. Both of Steele’s parents passed away in 2020.
Nearly five years ago Steele was given the task to create a system-wide palliative care program for Samaritan.
“Palliative care looks at anybody with serious illness where their quality of life or length of life is impacted by that illness,” Steele Said. “We help them to sort out their own personal goals, medical goals and make sure that their treatments are in alignment with that.”
The program he expanded now serves Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. It includes two integrated programs, one at GSRMC working with the new transvascular aortic valve replacement and the other a community-wide program serving heart patients in Linn County.
“Dr. Steele has been instrumental in expanding and maturing the SHS Palliative Care Program,” said Barry Smith, M.D. “He took the program from a fledgling enterprise at GSRMC to most inpatient facilities and specific outpatient focus for specific diagnosis.”
Besides palliative care Steele has been a leader in education at GSRMC.
“Dr. Steele earned the Internal Medicine Faculty Member of the Year award several times due to his tireless and excellent education of residents,” Smith said.
“I really love teaching,” Steele said. “I love seeing the residents grow and seeing them learn their independence.”
In retirement, Steele plans to assist his wife Kelli in helping their autistic son Brian’s transition to an adult life. “If I had a goal, it’s really helping my son transition to adulthood in as thoughtful way as I can,” Steele said. “As more of a coach and a supporter than a guide or anything like that.”