What It Looks Like To Be A Hospital Chaplain In A Pandemic Hospital chaplain Matt Norvell has been praying with patients for more than a decade. But the last nine months during the coronavirus pandemic have been the most intense of his career.
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What It Looks Like To Be A Hospital Chaplain In A Pandemic

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What It Looks Like To Be A Hospital Chaplain In A Pandemic

What It Looks Like To Be A Hospital Chaplain In A Pandemic

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

More than 100,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. Some of those patients and their loved ones have found comfort with hospital chaplains. Chaplains have been on the front lines, working with the sickest of patients throughout the pandemic and with families when those patients don't make it. From member station WAMU, Jacob Fenston introduces us to one chaplain at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Matt Norvell is an ordained Baptist minister. For the past 13 years, he's spent his days praying with patients before surgeries, baptizing sick children and helping grieving families cope after a death. In early April, he and the other dozen or so chaplains at Johns Hopkins were still figuring out how to do this work in the middle of the pandemic. A hand on the shoulder or a hug was no longer an option.

MATT NORVELL: 'Cause our normal practice would be you go ahead, and you pull up a chair next to someone's bed and you spend time talking to them, or you're providing support to staff, and you sit right next to them at a nurses station or in a workroom. And that's all out the window for right now.

FENSTON: Since the start of the pandemic, the hospital has been both buzzing with activity and strangely quiet. This is a recording Norvell made as he starts his day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: I spend a lot of time walking through hallways like this one. It's - they're long, empty hallways right now - lot of empty chairs where family members normally would be.

FENSTON: The hospital has in place strict limits on visitors. Most patients can't have any, period. Children and adults near death can have one. Chaplains and other staff stay out of patient rooms as much as possible, in part to conserve N95s and other equipment. It's Norvell's job to break through this isolation however he can. He mostly works in the pediatrics department. And thankfully, children haven't been as hard-hit by the virus, but kids have not been spared entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: The other day, I got called to our pediatric intensive care.

FENSTON: This is a recording Norvell made on May 23. There was a young patient who had quickly gone downhill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: The day before, he was OK. I mean, he was scared. But then he was starting to have some breathing problems. And then by the time I got called, he wasn't able to breathe on his own.

FENSTON: Then suddenly, the boy's heart stopped. Hospital staff raced to revive him but to no avail. Because of visitor restrictions, only the boy's mom was in the room when he died. Chaplain Norvell went downstairs with the nurse to get his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: And they just kept saying, this doesn't make any sense. This doesn't make any sense. And I kept agreeing with him like, there's nothing about this that makes any sense.

FENSTON: Norvell says he found out later what the boy died of - multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare disease that afflicts some children who've been infected with the coronavirus. Over the summer, Norvell says people working at the hospital hit an emotional low point. Case numbers were down, but it was starting to sink in. The coronavirus wasn't going away. By November, COVID infections were soaring to record levels.

NORVELL: We've been hanging out with this anxiety about another surge for three or four months. And now that it's really coming, the sort of corporate exhaustion from everybody - I mean, you can just about touch it.

FENSTON: Even the great news about vaccines feels like a distant glimmer of hope. It'll still be months before the general populace is immunized. In another recording Norvell made, he's again walking down a long, empty corridor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: Now I am pretty close to the end of my day.

FENSTON: It's a space and time of day where he often takes a moment to reflect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORVELL: I mean, it's weird. It's weird working in a hospital like this anyway, going in and out and knowing some people can't.

FENSTON: Throughout the pandemic, Norvell says his faith, his connection to God, has deepened. He's Christian, but one thing that's helped him cope is a Buddhist teaching - acceptance.

NORVELL: Personally, I've come to accept this is just going to be hard and different for a long time. I've been working on accepting that.

FENSTON: Chaplain Matt Norvell compares it to when a loved one dies, coming to grips with the fact that the world is permanently changed.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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