When they glimpse her through the fog of approaching death, her cherubic face encased in a gleaming white habit, terminally ill patients at Temple University Hospital sometimes mistake Sister Jocelyn Edathil for an angel.
They are not entirely wrong.
The Philadelphia-born nun is a kind of Broad Street Mother Teresa, a habited health-care professional. Sister Jocelyn has worked with lepers in her parents’ native India and now seeks out the homeless and drug-addicted at Temple. In the process, she’s discovered that the religious garb she once feared might be a distraction in her medical career instead flavors it with spirituality.
“I initially thought that if I wore a habit, some patients might judge me differently,” Sister Jocelyn said recently. “Some people have this idea that nuns are judgmental. But I’m very free and open and just try to love my patients. Now the majority of them don’t even comment on it.”
Sister Jocelyn, 41, educated at three Big 5 schools and elsewhere, is just one of the medical heroes to emerge during the COVID-19 outbreak, and one of the few who wears a habit and veil. While most patients can ignore her attire, some are happy to see it — especially, she said, those without shelter or fighting narcotics.
“Some of them say, `I’ve been struggling for a long time. Pray with me. Or just listen,’” she said. “Part of my philosophy is to listen and give that patient the opportunity to share their suffering and their story. Sometimes that leads to spiritual discussions.”
The potentially volatile intersection of the sacred and secular emerged as a possibility for Sister Jocelyn in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, amid reports of the strain it placed on Italy’s health-care system.
“We were hearing about physicians in Northern Italy having to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t,” she said. “So we started preparing philosophically and theoretically. Fortunately, we didn’t have to make those decisions here. I’m grateful that for the most part, my ethics and what I’m doing in a secular hospital mesh together.”
The pandemic’s demands tax an already overcrowded schedule for Sister Jocelyn, who lives in an Elkins Park residence that serves as a convent for her and another sister from her India-based order, the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ.
A hospitalist — an in-patient, internal-medicine-trained physician – she not only cares for patients at Temple, but also teaches medical students there; sits on hospital committees that monitor ethics and diversity among other topics; lectures regularly by Zoom; shepherds youth and women activities at her parish church in Elizabeth, N.J.; sings in its choir; conducts online prayer meetings; attends Mass daily; pauses four times a day for prayers.
And for all that, she pulls down a zero-figure salary.
“As a sister, I take a vow of poverty so all of my salary goes to the congregation,” she said.
A second-generation Indian American, Sister Jocelyn was born at Temple, where her mother worked as a nurse, and raised in the Northeast. Her father, a Philadelphia real estate broker, had a brother who was a priest at St. Jude Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, then in East Oak Lane, but recently relocated to Bensalem.
Centuries ago, that Eastern Rite offshoot spread from the Middle East to India. While its base remains there, the church has expanded to Ethiopia, Australia, South Africa. There is one North America diocese, and St. Jude’s, with more than 400 members, is among its largest parishes.
Religious as a child, Sister Jocelyn started to question her faith while a student at Central High.
A church retreat eased her doubts and by the time her uncle/pastor died at 56, she’d decided that “a religious vocation would really be something beautiful.”
“I was so profoundly inspired by his life that I wanted to completely dedicate mine to the Lord,” she said.
She won a full scholarship to Villanova, where she graduated with a degree in chemistry. In a dual program at Penn State, she got both her medical degree and a doctorate in chemistry. After her residency at Temple, she spent a year studying organic chemistry at Penn before departing to India for religious training. She took her vows in 2016.
“In India, I was kind of the medical consultant to the 100 sisters we had living there,” she said. “Whenever the older sisters had anything, I would run down and see what I could do. I worked in one of the leprosy clinics there. Most of the patients had already been cured but needed things like hand surgeries to regain function.”
Her days are long as she deals with patients, administrators, and med students at Temple, then returns at night to a nun’s life. She looks forward to Sundays, when she drives to St. Thomas Church in Elizabeth for worship and more service.
“It’s a smaller church, but I welcome the chance to work with the youth and women there,” she said.
She also counsels the parishioners there, mostly first-generation Indian Americans, on uch subjects as intercultural communication or how best to navigate social media.
“I find it really relevant working with different generations and different cultures,” she said. “It was great training to grow up in a diverse city like Philadelphia.”
When the pandemic arrived in late March, Sister Jocelyn volunteered to work in the hospital’s COVID-19 units.
“We have a lot of physicians who are younger and have families,” she said. “I was free and available. It was very intense at the beginning. There was a little bit of anxiety among staff and physicians. But overall people were very cooperative and very understanding. It’s been such an honor to be a physician during a pandemic.”
Amid the added pressures the outbreak placed on her, her patients, and the hospital, Sister Jocelyn’s alternate identity was barely a factor.
“She’s very open about who she is and patients are very comfortable to be open with her,” said Rachel Rubin, chief of hospital medicine.
Now that those pressures have eased, Sister Jocelyn is finding it less challenging to balance her vocations.
“The good thing is they’re both ministries,” she said. “So when I’m seeing a patient in the hospital, that patient is my ministry for the day. And when I’m seeing young people in the church, that becomes my ministry. I try to juggle both as best I can.”