Sister Doctor Grace Miriam Usala, a Religious Sister of Mercy and a physician, watched her parents, Dr. Stephen Usala and Dr. Faye Usala, serve the Catholic community with their professional vocations while she was growing up – her father cared for the priests and religious in the area and her mother was the director of Natural Family Planning for the local diocese.

“They are very lovely, devout Catholics themselves,” she said. “I had a good foundation.”

After her mother got sick when Sister Grace Miriam was 12 years old, she said the experience “made me realize what was important in life, and to think about the eternal.”

“It was around that time, when I was about 12, that I started to think about a religious vocation,” Sister Grace Miriam said. “I thought about it, but then I decided it wasn’t for me.”

She then headed off to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania for her undergraduate degree, which she chose, she said, for its secular reputation. However while she was a student at Bryn Mawr, Sister Grace Miriam said, “The Lord put a lot of things in my way that made it clear I was supposed to be a religious.”

She said it was little things such as encountering other students also discerning, or even having a quantum mechanics professor teach her how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours after learning Sister Grace Miriam was a devout Catholic, that helped lead her to her call.

Sister Grace Miriam turned to her father and his connections with different religious orders for help in finding the religious community she would enter. Through these connections, she was led to the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan, and Sister Grace Miriam said she kept a pamphlet of the religious order under her bed for over a year, but when she finally visited, “I just felt like I was at home,” she said.  

Completing her undergraduate degree before entering, Sister Grace Miriam joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy in September of 2007. 

Upon entering the religious order, Sister Grace Miriam was asked to contemplate Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, throughout her life and ministry.

“I was given the name Sister Grace Miriam and I was told that like Our Lady, I would stand with many people at the foot of the cross and bring compassion,” she said. “That was the mystery that was given to me, so Our Lady, especially with the title of Our Lady of Sorrows, has been a special source of devotion for me.”

After two years of formation at the order's motherhouse in Alma, her first mission was to go to Washington, D.C., and work at the Vatican Embassy while making preparations for medical school.

“I had always thought about being a doctor… and when my mom got very sick, I saw how they can really touch families,” she said. “I had actually already started the application (for medical school) before I entered the community.”

Sister Grace Miriam is currently a third-year internal medicine resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. She will finish her residency in about two months, and while the normal residency structure has shifted in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, she is serving COVID-19 patients in need of extra oxygen to recover in a high-flow unit within the intensive care unit.

“With the social distancing and all that entails, it’s been a real change in the way that we’re taking care of our patients,” she said, adding that it’s not easy seeing families unable to visit their loved ones, and seeing the patients, who are left without communication to the outside world.

“It’s heartbreaking to see families unable to be there at the bedside,” Sister Grace Miriam said. “Human healing is about touch.”

Sister Grace Miriam also said that it is difficult not being able to bring patients to the sacraments, adding that she is heartbroken at seeing people die without receiving the Anointing of the Sick.

“It just invites you to a deeper faith,” she said. “The Lord has a plan in all of this, and He is taking care of all of these people who are really suffering at the end.”

Being first a religious sister and second a physician has given Sister Grace Miriam a different perspective on how to treat these patients with extra care, she said.

“Particularly as a Religious Sister of Mercy, part of our spirituality is to create a home,” she said. “I’ve taken care of people in my home (in the past), as they were dying, been with them at the last moment, so just having had that opportunity has really given me a better perspective.”

Dr. Kevin Donovan (left) and Sister Grace Miriam keep social distance at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo) 

Sister Grace Miriam wears a modified work habit while working at the hospital, with sleeves she can roll up and a shorter veil, which she sewed buttons on so that she can wear her mask with ease.

“People see me in a habit and it allows them to remind (themselves) that it’s not just about the fact that (they’re) very ill, but that (they are) a child of God,” she said. “I’m very honored to be able to remind people of that.”

One specific saint that Sister Grace Miriam said she has been close with is Saint John Henry Newman, an English theologian and cardinal. 

“I’ve always just been so impressed by how brave he was, to essentially leave everything behind and follow Christ in the way he thought that God was calling him,” she said. “To leave family, to leave friends, and to really become an outsider… He’s a model for me right now even as I see all these people alone, he must have felt very alone, but the Lord had a plan in that.”

To women who might be discerning a religious calling, Sister Grace Miriam encourages them to ask themselves where they feel at home and to seek the people God has placed in their lives to help them discern their vocation and discover which community they might be called to enter.

“Jesus is our focus, and if you just pray with Him, He’ll make it pretty clear where you’re supposed to be,” she said.

And especially during times like this, she encourages people to “appreciate silence, and find God there.”

“I know especially in this time when its difficult to access the sacraments… it really invites us to a deeper devotion, deeper longing for the sacraments,” she said, adding that she sees this time in particular as a prolonged period of being in the tomb with Jesus.

In an age of social distancing, where access to the sacraments is limited, Sister Grace Miriam said that people can increase their devotion to making frequent spiritual communions, and spending time in prayer.

“You can’t do it alone,” she said. “Yes, we’re socially distant, but really it’s important that we continue to reach out to other persons of faith who have been guiding you along the path of faith. The saints are there too, be with them occasionally… it’s a good way in this time of longing, to be with Him.”