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Tales of COVID: Dr. Jocelyn Edathil

August 12, 2020
Dr. Edathil

Since becoming a Catholic nun, Sister Jocelyn Edathil – who also happens to be Jocelyn Edathil, MD, PhD, Temple University Hospital – took Holy Communion every day. Until the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

She would find a way to attend mass before or after her shifts as a hospitalist. Some days, when working on Temple’s Episcopal campus, she’d slip away to the Catholic Church next door and receive the Eucharist between seeing patients.

“Before COVID I don’t think it would be conceivable that I would let one single day go by without going to the Holy Mass and it was very hard for me to accept it.”

Sister Jocelyn felt the stress of the pandemic more acutely and completely than many health care workers at Temple University Hospital. She got it from all sides.

At work, she confronted COVID-19 like all other clinicians, finding a way to connect with patients while covered in PPE and keeping her distance when possible. As a physician and nun, she had the added responsibility of being a magnet to many colleagues and patients who came to her for comfort and support.

In her religious life, Sister Jocelyn, a member of a very conservative Catholic order, missed terribly the joy of Mass, especially with a full church. And like her colleagues at the hospital, she worried about bring the virus home to the convent, where her own life became much more isolated.

And finally, her own relatives were getting sick and dying. She lost her aunt and uncle, both 80, the same day. Holy Thursday, three days before their 50th wedding anniversary.

“The good Lord took both of them at the same time,” Sister Jocelyn said, “So they didn’t have to suffer and didn’t have to miss each other.” Like tens of thousands of other Americans, they died alone, without family. Sister Jocelyn was able to pray for her aunt outside the ICU doors.

Like so many of her colleagues, Sister Jocelyn applauded how well Temple responded to the virus. “I’ve never been so proud to be Temple made,” she said. Sister Jocelyn was born at Temple Hospital and did her residency here in internal medicine before becoming a hospitalist. “It was inspiring to see the level of preparation and organization we had as a hospital, as a health system,” she said. “Everybody was on board.”

At the outset of he pandemic, she volunteered to work in the Boyer Building, Temple’s converted COVID-19 hospital. She said she didn’t have fear for herself. “I’m happy to go to heaven right now,” she explained. “If this is my time, I can be a martyr for COVID. I’m very romantic,” she added with a laugh. “I’m ready.” She also volunteered because she knew so many of her coworkers had young children or were pregnant.

Dr. Edathil at TUH

But she volunteered before she realized the Mother General of her order from India would be staying at her convent in Elkins Park for two months.

“For me it wasn’t the fear of getting COVID,” Sister Jocelyn said.  “It was the fear of picking it up and giving it to the Mother General of our congregation and also the Mother Provincial. They were with us from the beginning of March, not realizing that the whole world had shut down… But they were praying and I was praying and I did as much handwashing as I could….”

In the hospital, she said, “I was trying to connect with patients and still maintain my six feet. How do you do that? All people can see is your eyes, and you have to connect with your eyes. I spent a little bit more time with them in the room, even more than I was comfortable with, just to make sure they were okay. We were the only human contact they had, other than the nurses.”

She continued to do physical exams, but not as extensively as she would have without the virus. “Our face shield became more important than our stethoscope,” she said. “We think of stethoscope as a defining part of our clothing as well as the white coat. I felt so much more comfortable with a face shield there. If I coughed, or somebody else coughed, there was a little bit of protection.”

She said Temple clinicians were incredibly brave and dedicated, putting patients first and overcoming their fears, especially early on, when PPE was limited and there were so many unknowns. Many colleagues confided in her.

“One of the nurses in Boyer,” she said, “grabbed my hand, put a rosary in it, and said `I have a lot of kids at home. Pray for me sister.’ She was full of faith. She was so encouraged to see a sister. That was really moving to me that someone had such a desperate prayer.”

Patients as well. “I had one patient who was wearing a rosary and she literally begged for me to pray for her. There were quite a few patients that really opened up and shared with me.”

Because of the pandemic, there were days she couldn’t attend Mass or receive communion. 

“We had every service for Holy Week,” she said. “It felt like literally Mary and John the Baptist at the tomb with Jesus and nobody else,” she said. “It feels profoundly lonely when you expect to have an entire church filled with people.”

And then her aunt and uncle got sick and died. Many other members of her congregation and family also got sick.

Sister Jocelyn says she doesn’t get mad at God. She accepts the deaths of her aunt and uncle as His will. “They lived beautiful lives and they helped many people.”

“But I’m angry at the world when they don’t wear masks and I hear people saying it’s a hoax,” she said. “I’m a physician and a scientist. Antiviral drug design was my PhD thesis. The data is real. I just don’t understand why our culture has been so resistant to these very basic measures. This has been hard for me to accept.”

The hardest part of all, she said, has been grieving.

“When you’re mourning, you really want to hug somebody or be around your family. That was challenging not to do that. I haven’t hugged any of my family members or anyone. Just to mourn with somebody next to you, just the idea that there are two people and you can sit together and say nothing. The lack of freedom to mourn the way you want to, that was so hard.” Her eyes welled with tears and her voice trailed off.

Sister Jocelyn said her priorities have changed since the pandemic. “You would think a nun doesn’t have to change priorities,” she said, “but I so much more appreciate the physical touch, the personal connection. Every time I get an opportunity to talk to someone, a physician, staff member, student, patient, an opportunity to connect with somebody, it’s such a valuable experience. So many people have experienced such isolation. Connection and personal connection mean so much more than anything we do.”

She ended the interview on a positive note. 

Ever hopeful, she says, “There must be something good that will come out of this much stress.”

For one, she says, “there are a lot of young people interested in the religious life now. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many young women contacting me. This is a beautiful way to live for others.”

She also described many of the features of COVID-19 – how patients are able to survive with such low oxygen levels, how the virus stays contagious for so long, other lasting effects it has -- and believes “we will learn so much more about human physiology after this virus is done.” 

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.