By Alicia Vitarelli
North Philadelphia: The daughter of a retired Temple University Hospital ICU nurse, Dr. Jocelyn Edathil now treats patients at that hospital, the place where she was born.
But that’s not the only unexpected aspect of Dr. Edathil’s practice.
She is also a nun.
Dr. Edathil gets a lot of double-takes on first meeting patients at Temple University Hospital.
They notice something different, but don’t always speak up.
“Usually the second time I go in, they’ll say – are you a nun? And I say yes I am,” Dr. Edathil says with a bright smile and laugh.
She is one of just 300 or so nuns and priests who are doctors and may be the only one practicing exclusively in a hospital.
She and her family are members of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, an Eastern Rite based in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
From the time she was 8, people told Dr. Edathil she had the temperament to be a nun.
One of them was an uncle who was a priest.
“But I was also interested in medical school because I thought that was very healing,” she recalls.
During senior year at Villanova University, while debating which one path to choose, Dr. Edathil met members of the Bethany Sisters, also known as the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ.
The Bethany Sisters urged her to pursue both: medical training first, then take her religious vows.
Two years ago, she became Sister Jocelyn, a member of the India-based order.
She was the first professed woman religious of her Church born in North America.
“There are definitely some areas that meet and some areas that are a little bit hard to combine,” she notes. For one thing, she has to juggle the time demands.
“There are 4 sets of or 7 times of prayer,” she explains, adding, “And also, we attend the Holy Mass every day.”
Sister Jocelyn does morning prayers and Mass before going to Temple to become Doctor Edathil.
She credits the early worship with reminding her that medicine and healing isn’t just science, that doctors must listen carefully to patients, and empathize with their suffering.
“You know, how would you treat them if this was your family member?” is her guiding principle.
“Even when the patient’s frustrated, put yourself in their shoes,” she added.
Colleagues say Dr. Edathil’s full habit doesn’t hamper her relationship with patients.
“Everyone meets us at a very challenging point in their lives,” says Dr. Rachel Rubin, chief of hospital medicine.
Dr. Rubin adds, “She’s very open about who she is, and patients are very comfortable to be open with her.”
Patients aren’t even shy about sharing personal medical information like drug or sexual histories.
And they often talk about their own spirituality, regardless of faith.
“We just talk about Christian things, you know, Christian living, and putting God first,” says Willa Bennett, of Germantown.
Sister Jocelyn’s religious order was founded nearly a century ago at a time of turmoil, for the reunion of churches, for the evangelization of India, and also for the emancipation of women.
“Where I can really make a difference here in the United States is the aspect of service to women,” she explains.
“As a sister, I am naturally an advocate for women. And so, there’s a lot of times I feel we should be doing more for women – to know their human dignity, to know their worth, especially in a sexual realm,” she says.
“It’s kind of interesting for a nun to be talking about human sexuality, but that’s so a part of who we are,” she adds.
Dr. Edathil’s medical mission also applies to her fellow doctors. She helps them avoid burnout, which affects half of all doctors in some specialties.
She approaches the demands of her own life with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s a lot of hats, it’s not a lot of time, and I’m tired, but I’m happy,” she told us.
A life of service isn’t so unusual in Dr. Edathil’s family – an older sister is also a doctor, married to a doctor…and a brother is a priest.