Matt Norvell, Pediatric Chaplain

Matt Norvell


My dad was in the army. I grew up a lot in Texas, and then lived in Germany for a little while. My dad was also a chaplain in the military.

My specific assignment at Johns Hopkins is to provide spiritual and emotional support to the patients, families and staff of the Children’s Center.

I sometimes think: I’m not helping someone get all the way across the creek or the river, but I can help them find the next stone that they need to get across.

I am ordained in a Baptist tradition called the Alliance of Baptists. However, hospital chaplains are trained to provide spiritual support to whomever we meet. I recently worked with an observant orthodox Jewish family that I really connected with. Certainly we had some spiritual and religious conversation, and there was a lot of general emotional support for a family facing the difficulties of having a sick child. When I meet a family who is Muslim or Baha’i or whatever specific faith and they say, ‘I really need to talk to, for example, an Imam,’ we have resources on our staff to cover these other individual belief system needs. We also have resources in the community that I can call on.

One thing on my list of “hard things to have to witness” is seeing parents having to make choices when they know their child is not going to live, and to have to make a choice to stop things. For me, those are some of the most difficult, courageous, deep, caring parenting moments.

There’s a lot of literature about resilience—how do you build resilience, avoid burnout, etc? And the reality is that most people—if you’ve made it to adulthood—are pretty resilient. And what happens is when people get put into a crisis situation, they maybe temporarily forgot those things that support them and keep them afloat. So a lot of what I do is evoke from people what it is that keeps them afloat and remind them that they’re resilient, strong, smart people.

One of the personal things that I’ve had to learn to do—and I don’t always do it successfully—is that even with the most horrific, saddest stories that I might be suddenly thrust into, I am able to remember that this child is not my child that’s sick or hurt. It would be impossible to carry the emotions of all the particular situations I witness.

One of the ways I stay emotionally healthy is I’ve got a garden that is maybe 20’ by 20’, and I’ve been growing tomatoes and peppers and a variety of other things. One of the things I’ve found is I have to have activities that I can be completely immersed in that have no emotional consequence. If I get more crab grass in the garden, that’s okay. Nobody gets hurt.

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1 Comment

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Meghan Toler May 19, 2017 at 9:27 am

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. The perspective you offer is very helpful to me.


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