A Writing Promise

Dr. Lisa Sponcler Norman (’93), surgical pathologist and mom of four, reignited a childhood passion as a way to give back.

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Lisa Norman holding up her "Love" book

Lisa Sponcler Norman (’93) Photo/Jodie Brim Creative

When Lisa Sponcler Norman (’93) was a child, she created books using construction paper and yarn to display the stories she wrote in the rhyming style of her favorite author, Dr. Seuss. She would then walk across her wooded backyard in Dalton, Georgia, to the apartment of her grandmother, “Mama,” to deliver the treasures. That’s how Norman’s love of writing began.

Before Mama died in 2011, at age 96, Norman recalls that her grandmother encouraged her to return to her craft, saying, “You really ought to write those children’s books that you used to talk about writing a long time ago.”

Lisa Norman, left, with her Mama, center, and sister

By then, Norman was practicing part-time as a general surgical pathologist with Novant Health in Winston-Salem and raising four children, Ellie, Jack, Hamilton and Mary Claire, with her husband, J. Keith Norman (’93), a wealth management adviser. Writing consisted of celebratory toasts for birthdays, poems for occasions and reflections in a journal — but just for fun.

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 disrupted all routines. Hospitals paused elective surgeries, and pathologists’ work slowed. Lisa Norman found herself in a quiet house while her children completed schoolwork online.

She had promised her grandmother she would write again one day. The time had come. Norman wrote a children’s book called “HOPE,” reflecting a feeling needed in 2020.

"HOPE makes us feel good and helps guide our way. It’s a bright happy feeling we hope you have every day!"

It became the first of the book series, “Ellie Asks,” which features 5-year-old Ellie, named for Norman’s oldest daughter, and her furry pal, Rose. Little Ellie asks her parents big questions and learns about what Norman defines as core values through the series’ titles: “HOPE,” “LOVE,” “RESPECT,” “JOY,” “GRIEF” and “GRATITUDE.”

“Core values are not about things that we achieve or things that we possess,” Norman says, “but rather directions and paths that we take in our life in order to have a meaningful existence and to try to make the world a better place.” Through the books, she wants to promote a positive message to “inspire kids and adults alike.”

The Norman family: Jack (17), Ellie (21), Hamilton (13), Lisa, Mary Claire (11) and Keith

In “GRATITUDE,” when rain cancels Ellie’s plans to climb a magnolia tree with her friends, she learns that an attitude of gratitude can change her mood. In “LOVE,” Ellie’s parents teach her: “Love is accepting someone, just as they are, respecting their dreams, and helping them go far.”

Norman decided to write “GRIEF” and “GRATITUDE” after watching her children grieve their beloved “Mimi,” Norman’s mother-in-law.

Ellie learns to reflect on the good things in her life in "GRATITUDE"
Illustration/Karen Moon

It may seem surprising for a pathologist to write children’s books, but Norman has always had varied interests. When she arrived at Wake Forest in 1989, she dipped her toes in business, considered broadcast journalism and studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain, with a favorite professor of Romance languages, Kathleen Glenn.

It wasn’t until senior year that Norman volunteered at a hospital and became “completely fascinated with medicine.”

After graduating from Wake Forest with Spanish and speech communication majors, Norman packed nearly all the pre-med requirements into a year at Georgia State University, took the MCAT and was accepted at Emory University School of Medicine. She chose pathology as her specialty for work-life balance and its gateway to lifelong learning.

In Goya, Argentina, where Norman lived as a high school exchange student, a school uses “Ellie Asks” to teach English and core values to children.

Pathology, she says, is like being a “medical detective.” She examines tissues to determine whether they are benign or malignant. “Nothing breaks my heart more than finding out that anybody has cancer,” she says, “But obviously, (diagnosing) a child is really devastating.”

Norman sees a direct connection between her books’ messages and her responsibility to help patients. “In medicine, hope is … one of the most powerful motivational factors in the healing process,” she says. “Every human being deserves kindness and respect across the planet. … So, when I look back on my years in medicine, I really feel like providing hope and love and respect and joy to patients is really as important as getting the diagnosis right.”

In Winston-Salem, “Ellie Asks” is sold at The Book House in Reynolda Village and Rolly’s Baby Boutique on Stratford Road, whose owner, Melanie Barbee (MBA '87, P '19), says she likes to support local authors. “It’s the cherry on top that she’s a Deac, too,” she says.
Photo/Jodie Brim Creative

Norman donates a portion of her books’ proceeds to the Children’s Cancer Support Program at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem.

For families, traveling for a child’s cancer treatment, sometimes from hours away, can be expensive, says Jeff Ungetheim, support program director and licensed professional counselor at Brenner. Donations like Norman’s can go toward gift cards to help with travel, meals and children’s items such as diapers, he says. Gifts also support the annual holiday party and spring picnic, when families, both on and off treatment, connect with each other and the oncology staff.

Drew Schindler (’07), director of philanthropy for women’s and children’s health at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, says they rely on support from small businesses and local supporters, like Norman.

"When I look back on my years in medicine, I really feel like providing hope and love and respect and joy to patients is really as important as getting the diagnosis right."

Norman has more books on the way, including ones that focus even more on her Christian faith. “I feel like you have to be your authentic self,” she says. “Spending time in prayer and being grateful each day are a part of my day.”

“Jack’s Favorite Fruits” will teach about the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, nine characteristics of someone living a Christian life. The Normans’ oldest son is the main character, next in line for Lisa Norman’s plan to honor each child in the family with books — and to keep her promise to her Mama to write.

For more, visit lisanormanbooks.com

Photo/Jodie Brim Creative



About the Author

Katherine Laws Waters (’20) is deputy editor of Wake Forest Magazine. Previously she interned with Wake Forest Magazine and Our State magazine, and she was a Wake Forest Fellow in the Office of Personal and Career Development after graduation.

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