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Habit of the Heart

December 21, 2016

Photo by Ed Cunicelli

While making her rounds at Temple University Hospital the other day, Dr. Jocelyn Edathil went to see a patient, Mrs. Geneva Meade.

Mrs. Meade, 69, an amputee with a myriad of health problems, most recently a blood clot in her lung, was reading a book, “Power Prayers for Women.” Mrs. Meade, it turned out, had been an evangelist for decades.

Beneath her white medical coat, Dr. Edathil, 37, wears the white habit of a Catholic nun.

In addition to saving lives, Dr. Edathil is devoted to saving souls. If she feels a patient would be receptive to prayer — usually the terminally ill, the heroin addicts, the lonely and the lost, or those, like Mrs. Meade, who are open about their faith — she will ask if she can come back and pray with them.

With Mrs. Meade, it was a little different.

“I’m a new sister,” Dr Edathil explained to Mrs. Meade. “I just took my vows in August. Usually when I pray with patients I pray for them and for their health. Since you have the experience, I would be so grateful if you would pray for me.”

“I’d be honored to pray for you honey.”

The two women held hands, one in bed, the other standing beside it. Mrs. Meade got so animated and loud in her praise that a nurse came in to check on the noise.

“Pray for my sister right now, God. I’m asking you to touch her, go with her, anything that come up against her I’m asking you to pass that into the pits of hell…Keep your angels all around her, God. She surrendered her life to you…”

After the prayer, a solid five minutes, Dr. Edathil was beaming. And her eyes were moist.

“Oh my God. Thank you so much,” Dr. Edathil said.

“Anytime,” said Mrs. Meade.

•   •   •

She introduces herself to patients as Dr. Edathil. To her fellow physicians, she is comfortable just being Jocelyn. Outside the hospital, she is Sister Jocelyn — “My most important title,” she says.

She is so fortunate that her service to God includes a profession she loves deeply. “It is a great joy for me after all these years of training to do both,” she said.

She keeps a rosary in each front pocket of her white coat, and tries to attend Mass every morning before coming to work. One day recently, she missed, but was working at Episcopal Hospital where a Catholic church is literally next door. She ducked out in late afternoon when she had a moment to receive the Eucharist. She kneeled and prayed in a pew, her stethoscope sticking out of her coat pocket, a moment of sublime peace. She was radiant as she crossed the parking lot back to the hospital. “It’s heaven,” she said. “Without that I couldn’t go on.”

She went to see a patient, Joseph Rios, 24, a heroin addict who, in a rush to escape the police, injected himself in the hand, not in a vein, and his hand got infected and swelled like a boxing glove. He was getting antibiotics.

Dr. Edathil asked him about his life, his addiction. He said he’d tried to get into a rehab program but blamed his failure on a lack of coverage. “I’ll pray for your insurance to open a door,” she told him. She tried to get him to imagine a different kind of life, off drugs, working, and told him he should consider becoming a phlebotomist — someone who draws blood. “I’ve met quite a few addicts who can find a vein anywhere,” she told him. He then told her with some pride, “People pay me to find their neck veins.”

She returned that evening to pray with him.

She asked him to promise that he would stay the night, see her in the morning, and work with her on getting clean.

He kept his promise, or at least the first part. He saw her at 7:30 a.m. but then left the hospital AMA — against medical advice. This is common among addicts. The hunger for heroin is too great.

“I am a little disappointed,” Dr. Edathil said the next day. “I know it takes time but I thought he would work with me. I must be faithful…not necessarily successful.”

•   •   •


Photo by Ed Cunicelli

She calls herself a “baby nun” still so new into the religious life, and observing her vows isn’t always easy. She rarely cooked, and always bought herself the food she wanted when she wanted. But with a vow of poverty, even buying Starbucks is considered an extravagance.

“One of the things that’s most difficult now is that I have to pack my lunch,” she says.

She is paid a hospital salary, but gives this to her order.

For Dr. Edathil, science and faith have long gone hand in hand.

Dr. Edathil, whose parents emigrated in the 1970s from Southern India, was born at Temple Hospital and raised in Philadelphia. (Her mother, now retired, was a RICU nurse at Temple for 25 years.) The family belongs to the Malankara Catholic Church, popular in Southern India but making up less than one percent of the Catholic Church worldwide.

When Dr. Edathil was 13, she was at a church service with a charismatic preacher. “God, if you’re for real, show me,” she said. The preacher declared that 20 people in the crowd would feel a bolt of electricity and stand up.

“I felt electricity all through my body,” Dr. Edathil recalled. “I stood up. I’m very scientific. I counted out 19 others.”

She went on to Central high school, and Villanova on full scholarship and as her tithe devoted 10 percent of her time to the campus ministry.

She decided to become a nun at the end of her senior year, but by then was already accepted into a graduate program in chemistry at The University of Pennsylvania and an MD/PhD program at Penn State.

She figured she had time to pursue the religious life and she loved science, so she went to Penn for a year, and then switched to Penn State to begin her medical education. She went on to do her residency in internal medicine at Temple.

“I saw learning about the human body as a type of spiritual exercise,” she said. “She loves the diagnostic challenge of figuring out what’s wrong with patients. “Every day is a mystery,” she says. She also loves teaching.

This was evident during rounds.

“The patient has a MRSA pneumonia,” she quizzed an intern, Lauren Monaco, outside a hospital room. “I’m going to give Daptomycin. You say `OK’ or you say `no’?”

“I’m going to say …`no’?” said the intern.

“Okay, I like it,” said Dr. Edathil. “Do you know why?”

“Poor lung penetration?”

“There’s something that actually inactivates the Daptomycin,” the doctor continued. “Do you know what that is?”


Dr. Edathil continued. “It’s what premature babies don’t produce enough of….“

“Surfactant…” said the intern.

“I was actually surprised at how much she was like other attendings,” said one resident. “She is incredibly smart and can be intense at times. She asks hard questions and expects a lot. She wants to train her residents like she was trained. Don’t let the habit fool you. When she’s in the hospital she is first and foremost a doctor.”

•   •   •

In the summer of 2013, Temple was revamping its hospitalist program — hospitalists are physicians who work exclusively in hospitals taking care of patients — and Dr. Edathil applied. But she explained to Dr. John Davidyock, chief of the hospital medicine section, that she would be leaving in a few months to begin her religious training as a nun.

“I didn’t care if she gave us one week or two days or a month,” he said. “I didn’t hesitate.” He thought her decision to become a nun only underscored her level of commitment to patients.

Dr. Edathil worked two months at Temple, went to India for a year and a half to begin her religious formation, came back to Temple for three months, and then left in spring of 2015 to complete her novitiate, what she calls her “nun residency.” For over a year she spoke only to 12 other nuns in training.

She wears the habit and veil because it is required by her religious order. She was worried at first that this might cause problems at Temple, with such a diverse patient population. “Getting the drug history, getting the sexual history. So far, thank God, it hasn’t been. The patients are absolutely accepting. Some are thrilled.”

Many patients assume she is a Muslim, wearing a head covering, a common sight at Temple. And so few young people today, she adds, have actually ever seen a nun in a habit.

Often when walking the halls, patients and their families will give her an Arabic greeting, “Assalam Alaikum” (May God grant you protection and security). She will respond in kind, “Alaikum Assalam.”

“I have no problem blessing in Arabic,” she explains.

She went in the other day at Temple to see Terry Jenkins, 54. He missed three weeks of kidney dialysis, preferring to be high on marijuana. Near death, his cousin brought him to Temple, where two cycles of dialysis brought him back.

Jenkins is Muslim and assumed Dr. Edathil was too. “I thought it was a Khimar,” a form of Muslim head covering, he said of her veil.

It had become clear to her that he used marijuana as a panacea for all his problems. He probably had a lot more pain than he let on. She tried to probe, to learn more about him, to find a way to help him, but had little success.

“I just love the weed too much,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “But I don’t want you to be taking so much weed that you’re not going to dialysis.”

She prayed for him later when she did her rosary.

•   •   •

Dr. Edathil has so many people to pray for she uses an app on her phone to keep track. She swipes through screen after screen, making sure everybody’s covered. There’s even a green check mark for prayers that are answered.

“I asked her to pray for my mother in law who is Presbyterian and had a total knee replacement,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, a fellow Temple hospitalist who also taught Dr. Edathil during her residency.

That prayer got a green check.

One day, every patient of Dr. Rubin’s was extremely sick and she asked Dr. Edathil “to pray for my entire service because everyone can use it. I’m out of options at this point.”

Adds Dr. Rubin: “Some people got better.”

“She’s a wonderful physician,” Dr. Rubin says. “She is caring and patient and thoughtful, and really keeps the patients’ best interest at heart.

“I’m Jewish and I can honestly say I don’t think her faith has ever created any conflict or problems here,” Dr. Rubin added. “I know her belief is to really love everyone, all her patients and colleagues.

 “This is a testament to the diversity of Temple,” Dr. Rubin said. “No one really bats an eye. I don’t know if it would be the same at other places. Everyone is very accepting.”

•   •   •

Dr. Edathil went to see one patient in a pink bathrobe, whose last big issue was whether to be discharged to a nursing home. The cardiac patient wasn’t strong enough yet to go home. Her husband had found a nursing home, but the patient felt it was too far away. Dr. Edathil asked if she could pray with the woman.

On the television overhead, people shouted in a pseudo courtroom drama. On the bottom of the screen was this banner: “Is the man I love cheating on me with my twin sister?”

Patient and doctor were oblivious, absorbed in prayer, a moment of peace.

“Thank you Lord for her heart. Thank you lord that her weakness has gotten better. Thank you Lord as she is about to leave this hospital, prepare a place for her, that she goes to the facility that you want her to go to, that her husband’s happy with, that she’s happy with… ”

Then Dr. Edathil was on to see her next patient.

•   •   •

Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.