On December 14, one of the sisters at the Convent of Mercy motherhouse in Philadelphia tested positive for COVID-19. Seventy-seven sisters live in the house and, until that day, for them, coronavirus was that disease out there. Many lives, including mine, changed in that moment.
I serve as a pediatric emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital in Baltimore, and every time I work a shift there, I am exposed to coronavirus. Thus far, I’ve managed to dodge the bullet. Since I know how to wear PPE (personal protective equipment), I was asked that night in Philadelphia to help transport the covid-positive sister to a clinic where she could obtain a potentially life-saving antibody infusion. A snowstorm was predicted, so I was told to pack an overnight bag, just in case. I expected to stay one night; 26 days later, I returned home.
On day three, more sisters were identified as having symptoms; on day four, it was four sisters. On day five, we obtained tests and nasal swabbed all 75 sisters and 20 staff. On day seven, we got the results: Six sisters tested positive—the four we expected and two we didn’t.
Immediately upon learning that coronavirus had invaded the convent, masks went on all sisters’ faces when they left their rooms; communal dinners ceased, and trays began appearing outside all doors at mealtimes; chapel services were cancelled; isolation signs went up; quarantine signs hung on cluster doors; thermometers and pulse oximeters were distributed; and night aides/nurses were hired to keep the sisters safe through the night. It was a difficult adjustment. The virus got ahead of us, and we were playing catch-up.
Sisters learned and lived the words isolate, quarantine, mitigation, contact tracing, asymptomatic carrier, Day 0, antibody infusion, mRNA, rapid test and PCR testing, among other coronavirus terms. They also cared for each other during this time with tender mercy and solicitation, calling each other so often that one sister told me she had to take her phone off the hook because so many offers of help were coming in!
On December 28—day 14 of the coronavirus epidemic at the Convent of Mercy and day two of having no new sisters with symptoms—I traveled to Hopkins to work some shifts. There, I received the first of the two Pfizer vaccination shots. It was effortless. I showed up in an enormous auditorium at the appointed time and was back at work in 30 minutes. No lines, no wait, no pain!
Receiving the vaccination sooner than others made me uncomfortable, and I was reluctant to share the news with the sisters when I returned to the Convent of Mercy. At that point, 21 sisters had contracted coronavirus, four had been transferred to the higher-care nursing convent and one dear sister had died. These sisters, more vulnerable because of their age and co-morbidities, were struggling through this virus and I, at least 20 years younger, had received the vaccination. Survivor’s guilt? Position of privilege? Yet I would have been a fool not to accept it—the science is good, and the results are promising.
In Philadelphia, as in many large religious communities, we have watched as coronavirus has run through the house and sisters have struggled with the disease. The virus doesn’t care who you are, and the vaccination is not political.
As a doctor—and even more fundamentally, as a human being and a Sister of Mercy who was privileged to care for my fellow sisters, to deepen relationships with some and to grow relationships with others I had not known previously —I’ve seen enough. I don’t want anyone else to suffer needlessly. I urge each and every one of you to please get vaccinated. The life you save may be your own.