Matt Norvell pulls into the hospital parking garage during the early morning and receives a page: A young patient unexpectedly went into surgery and the mother is crying, afraid that her child may not survive. Norvell sits for hours with her in the surgical waiting area, reminding himself this is why he chose to become a minister and pastoral counselor.
“In high school, people said I was a really good listener and that shaped me,” he says. “A piece of my inspiration toward professional ministry was the desire to be with people and understand their relationship with themselves, with other people and with God.”
Norvell was always drawn to the one-on-one counseling of ministry, but he found through his early intern work that the pace and intensity of the medical world was a better fit. “When you get a call in the hospital, there’s an acute need to help someone, where in a church setting it’s more sporadic,” says Norvell, pediatric chaplain at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
Why the focus on children and their families? “The stakes feel a little higher working with sick kids,” he says. “Nobody ever says, ‘He lived a good life’ when a kid dies. It’s always a bad thing.”
Norvell received a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and a Master of Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University. He started at Johns Hopkins in 2007 as a chaplain resident in pediatrics, and he was then hired as a pediatric palliative care support specialist. When funding came through for a Department of Pediatrics chaplain, he landed the job following a national search.
In addition to supporting patients and families, Norvell tends to the spiritual and emotional health of Children’s Center staff members: “A challenge for health workers taking care of sick, vulnerable children, is there isn’t a place built into their professional role to deal with emotions.”
Norvell lets them know that he’s available when they need to talk. If the stress they face isn’t addressed, Norvell says, there may be consequences that interfere with their mental health and their ability to do their job.
“They tell me they haven’t slept because of stress,” he explains. “I say, ‘Dude, this is a real thing. You should pay attention to this.’”
When the pandemic hit, however, Norvell had to make such connections in new ways: Walking the halls and making eye contact above all the masks. Comforting patients by talking by phone through glass doors. Sending the entire staff weekly inspirational emails to ease anxiety.
“Most of the world was being told to stay home and health care workers were told to come to work,” says Norvell. “That worry of putting their lives and their families at risk layered on top of trying to teach kids at home, see a sick parent and somehow find toilet paper, was too much.”
One resource for staff is the RISE (Resilience in Stressful Events) program, co-developed by Norvell. It provides emergency psychological and emotional first aid to employees — if something goes wrong with a patient and the staff member doesn’t want to talk about it with coworkers, the employee can talk to a peer responder.
“When COVID hit, RISE went from about four calls a week in January to 30 calls a week March through May,” says Norvell. “RISE is now in 65 hospitals across the country.”
For his own emotional stability, Norvell focuses on his family and hobbies like gardening, golf and bluegrass jam sessions. “When I’m playing the banjo,” he says, “I can immerse myself in the music and not think about health care or COVID.”