Career of caring
Elizabeth Edmunds had already tugged the iconic white doctors coat over her shoulders before she unlocked the front door of her office building, wanting to look the part for an anticipated photograph.
Hers is a clean building on a clean lot in an aesthetically middle-class neighborhood on Carsonia Avenue in Pennside, just outside of the Berks County seat of Reading.
It's where she laid her roots.
She paid to have the building constructed and opened its doors in 1987 with not many patients to speak of.
"I was going into big debt. I think I drained every penny I ever had. I had to build this building and buy all this equipment. It was tough," Edmunds, 72, said during an interview inside an exam room at the office.
She never advertised her business, save for a blurb in the bulletin at her church. She was good to her patients and her patients were good to her, sharing positive word of mouth that helped build her client list. She estimates she treated more than 5,000 patients at the site as of last summer.
The office closed in July 2012 and Edmunds moved about two miles away to Healthways Family Medical Center in Exeter Township, where she continues to practice medicine two days a week.
"I consider my career to have been very rewarding, and the day I have to close my doors (for good) and walk away it's going to break my heart," she said as she choked up a bit. "I love my people."
Her people love her, and respect her for sure. It was her people - her colleagues, her patients - that nominated her for the 2013 Family Physician of the Year Award, an honor bestowed upon her by the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians.
Edmunds was born in Shamokin on Feb. 7, 1941, a daughter of Mary and George Edmunds. She lived on West Montgomery Street until about the fifth grade when her family moved to 337 S. Market St.
The neighborhood was safe and nice and was populated by a lot of kids. In the winter when snow piled up, they'd sleigh ride down the park plots dividing the northbound and southbound lanes of Market Street.
"It was fun. We'd go out all day and have fun going down that hill," she said.
As a student at Shamokin Catholic High School, Edmunds had already begun doing social work. She knew she wanted to be a doctor. During her senior year she came to realize something else, that she wanted to become a nun.
She graduated in 1958 and matriculated at what was then known as College Misericordia and began preparation to become a Sister of Mercy.
"I realized I had a vocation and I entered the convent, and the community I entered told me I was either going to be a teacher or a nurse and they wanted me to be a teacher. So I had no choice. I was told I was going to be a chemistry major and a math minor, and that's what I was."
Act of faith
Edmunds taught both high school and college for nine years, all the while earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1966 and a master's degree in chemistry in 1971 from University of Scranton.
Medical school remained on her mind and she sought permission from her sister superior to apply. She was told to apply both to medical school and graduate school, and she did. She returned with acceptance into two medical schools along with a high alternate designation, as well as invites for four graduate teaching opportunities toward earning a doctorate.
Given the choice, at that point, she said she didn't care. She hadn't wanted to be a teacher but her experience leading a classroom all those years cultivated a passion for it. But it wasn't enough to override her desire for a career in medicine, and she was given permission to enroll at The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, which is now a part of Drexel University College of Medicine.
"A lot of things had happened around my going to medical school that hurt deeply and made me have second thoughts. In the end, the (religious) community pulled out all support. I went to medical school with a vow of poverty, no way to take out a loan.
"I went to medical school with the act of faith that if it was God's will I was going to get through it because I had nothing."
Two years into medical school and while still in the convent, Edmunds joined the U.S. Naval Reserves and received a two-year scholarship.
She already had one unique tie to the Navy. The USS Francovich, a destroyer-transport, was named for her uncle, Albert Francovich, who was killed in the Soloman Islands during World War II, according to a release published in 1973 in The News-Item.
Her commission into the medical corps made it two unique ties - Edmunds' is the only Roman Catholic nun in the Navy's history to be commissioned.
That same summer of 1973 she worked with Dr. J. Mostyn Davis, a family practitioner in Shamokin whom she admired greatly. If he'd had continued his practice, she'd have joined him.
"If I was coming back to Shamokin, I wanted to work with him."
But Davis ended up taking a residency at Geisinger, she said, and a collaboration wasn't meant to be.
Two residencies followed her graduation from medical school in 1975 before she began two years active duty at the Naval hospital in Pensacola, Fla., in 1978. She wore a Navy uniform, not a habit.
"As far as they were concerned, I was just another female physician in the Navy," she said.
Edmunds would eventually decide to leave the convent. If things had worked out differently, she said she'd have never left.
"All I ever wanted to do was come back and open a clinic for the poor in one of our hospitals."
That wasn't the plan.
Love and work
Edmunds became an assistant professor and director of education activities at Albany Medical College in Albany, N.Y. in 1980. In 1981, she took a job at Wyoming Valley Family Practice in Kingston. She took both jobs to be as close as possible to her mother in Shamokin, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She would visit as frequently as her schedule allowed, and she cared for her until her death.
A job in the emergency room at Berwick Hospital followed, at which time she was also working part-time at Family Medicine in Kingston. She ended up in Reading as an associate director of family practice at St. Joseph Medical Center from 1984 to 1986 before leaving to begin her own family practice.
Long removed from Northumberland County and a great many other places, Berks County was where Edmunds finally settled.
Early into her career now in her own office on Carsonia Avenue, a patient had set Edmunds up on a blind date. She had recently broken off an engagement and marriage was far from her mind. As it goes, her would-be date had been divorced for a number of years.
All went well and they continued to see each other, but she couldn't help in thinking about their differences, chief among them was that he was older and Presbyterian.
In the end it didn't matter.
About one month after they began dating, John Bankert popped the question. They were married in 1989 and remained so until his death in 2009.
Bankert's passing was devastating. Her friend, who also is a priest, noticed as much.
"He said to me, 'You're killing yourself. You've got to stop doing nothing but eating and sleeping and working. You have to have a life.'"
She felt lost. Now in her late 60s, she wasn't about to go looking for a date. Not in a bar. Not anywhere. Not until the friend got her started on a Christian dating website. He made her try it for three months.
"I said, 'You're nuts,'" she recalled. "I did, and I met my husband."
She married her second husband, Charles A. Itle, on June 30, 2012.
Edmunds is modest and dignified, strong and thoughtful. Her character and her mannerisms could peg her for a family doctor without the many degrees or the doctor's coat tipping anyone off.
She credits her success to her upbringing in Shamokin and her exposure to good role models in the medical community. Also, she said, her own ethics and morals.
"My mother always taught me that you never got anywhere if you didn't work for it," she said. "Decide what you want to do and work for it.
"You can accomplish it if you work for it."