“I’m going to die,” the Reverend Janet Broderick told herself, even before receiving news that she had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She thought quickly, praying to Jesus and planning her funeral. There was the preacher, the music, the list of people who would attend. She texted her sister Martha: “I love you very much.”
Her brother Matthew was in the middle of tech rehearsal for the revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy Plaza Suite. On breaks, he would text her as often as he could. “I was nervous and scared, but the reports at the time were saying people would be okay. It was shocking,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m worried about my family, my friends and myself. Everybody. It’s a very anxiety-filled time. We just have to be patient and try not to panic.”
Janet had fallen ill with body aches and swollen glands after returning home from an annual conference in Kentucky, and she found out that another rector who attended the conference had tested positive for COVID-19. After being in the priesthood for 30 years, she missed all four Ash Wednesday services for the first time in her life.
As she attempted to work through the illness, Janet’s head became foggy, she couldn’t think logically, and she had a dry cough. Each day, she was fading. On Monday, March 9, Janet arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills with her daughter Hannah. After five hours, someone from the Health Department finally obtained a test and administered it. The results wouldn’t be in for a few days.
Later that evening, Janet’s symptoms worsened. She was diagnosed with pneumonia, had difficulty breathing, and received an oxygen tube. Her oxygen levels decreased, going from 90 to 89. Her temperature teetered at 102, and she was immediately rushed to the ICU. “I was very, very sick,” she said. “I could tell I was actually in big trouble.”
Eventually, doctors injected antibiotics and Kaletra, an antiviral medicine normally used to treat HIV. The next day around noon, Janet woke up from a delirious state and felt stronger. She was eventually moved to an isolation room and spent a total of six days in the hospital. It was traumatizing experience, she said. Her illness made the headlines. Ultimately, she believes her faith and others praying for her are what saved her. “I’m alive,” she told Intelligencer from her house in Beverly Hills, where she is currently quarantined. “Thank God, really.”
First and foremost, how are you feeling?
Actually, this is a good day. I’m sort of up and down but mostly up and totally getting better. Occasionally, I have moments of being tired and thinking, “Oh my God, it’s coming back.” I have been trying to really use my time to do spiritual things. I write a devotional every day. For the first time this week, I said I would like to preach this Sunday. We’re having a virtual church. I’m thinking each day about what is God — do I have an inspiration for folks in these very complex times, guided by the holy spirit and the scriptures, that can be helpful and meaningful? Thank God, something kind of comes to me.
Are you still testing positive for COVID-19 right now?
My doctor says I’m less infectious every day. I don’t know if I still have it; I haven’t been retested lately. The health department has cleared me because I haven’t said yes to any of their questions about symptoms. However, the infectious disease doctor from Cedars-Sinai wants me to wait until March 31. I’m living very cautiously. I obviously don’t want to relapse, and of course, to possibly take the chance of infecting anyone. My kids are both here but I’m living on the top floor. When I use the kitchen, I wipe everything down with Windex and anyplace I touch. I wash my hands a lot. Last night, I watched television in the same room as them but sitting in a chair more than six feet away.
What was your first night in the ICU like?
I was close to death. I kind of had gone off the cliff — my lungs had to make a decision. I had pneumonia and water in my lungs. I remember thinking, Calm down and go to sleep. I spoke to Jesus, I planned my funeral. I FaceTimed with my children. They say now I looked and sounded like Darth Vader. I was gasping for air.
Did you get preferential treatment being a religious leader and Matthew Broderick’s sister?
Yes, but I feel evil for saying that. I think I’m absolute living proof that this system is completely corrupt. My GP didn’t know I was Matthew Broderick’s sister and didn’t care very much. But as soon as I got ahold of the guy at the hospital who knew who Matthew was, I was given the name of the head of the emergency room. Well, trust me, the folks I’ve spent my lifetime working with in Jersey City would never have been given the name of the head of the emergency room. If they were, it would have been disregarded. I think there is no question and it breaks my heart. My God, I hope this causes us to take some kind of look at how we are handling medicine in this country. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
What does it feel like to barely be able to breathe and to not be sure you’ll make it?
Have you ever been where there isn’t quite enough oxygen? You just have to take more breaths and smaller ones. You don’t feel any liquid. Each breath is shorter and it’s more rapid. When I started getting critically ill, my breaths were not deep and came closer together. You try to stay evenly paced, even though the breathing rate increased. It’s sort of like a nice, sweet, painless way to die. Slowly, you are sort of getting less out of each moment. There was no pain. I couldn’t think. It’s a very scary thing in the hospital when you can’t think.
Were you frightened as you were facing death?
I was not frightened. But I don’t mean to say I didn’t take it seriously. I realized in a very, very deep and very real way that I had absolutely no control. I remember my mother when she wanted to die of cancer. She was in her last weeks of her life, she was dying and she wanted it to happen quicker. I see this with a lot of people — she was just waiting and you become very upset and anxiety-ridden and people always ask: Why is it so hard to die? For a lot of folks, when you know you are going to die, it is painful and uncomfortable and it can seem endless. For me, this didn’t last that long; I had about 18 hours. I think in that period of time, I felt my job was not to struggle against whatever God intended — I thought the struggle would kill me. I was afraid of fear. I knew that fear would hurt me and I knew that it could kill me. It was really important to stay out of that. Religious training gives you this place to go, which is this place of acceptance. I was there.
How did your family take the news?
They were terrified. I think they were way more terrified than I knew. I was a little bit in La La Land. My sister Martha told me, “Stop it. You’re not dying!” I knew then, “Oh crap, I know I’m dying.” They are now beginning to admit to me how scared they were. I think it was terrifying for everybody.
How did you bounce back so fast?
On day two in the ICU, I woke up from this fog, and I knew it was over and I was out of danger. My oxygen had gone up to about 95 percent, and I had no fever at all. The headache had left. I can’t explain this virus, but it’s not like any feeling or any illness I’ve ever had before in my life. I kept thinking that it must be what it’s like to be on chemotherapy. It made me feel awful. I was on ibuprofen and medicine they give for pregnant women with HIV. I didn’t get the popular drugs. The infectious-disease doctor came. He didn’t want to robe, so I had to talk to him through the door. That happened a lot. He said, “We don’t understand what happened to you. It was either the drug or your immune system, but you seem out of the woods and you seem to have bounced back.” He said none of the other patients responded the way I had. It hadn’t happened to anyone else. I was still very sick, but I can’t explain it.
What do you think happened?
I must have had 200 people praying for me that night. I know many people would be very angry to hear that, because you can pray for somebody and they would die. That’s absolutely true. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. But I do know that I had an incredible amount of prayer from so many people. That’s the thing about being in a community like the church, just being part of a whole and knowing that you are connected. It seems to be very healthy, truly healthy. How do you relax when your lungs have liquid? You have to somehow get over on it emotionally on it, right? I think having years and years of a very spiritual life and all sorts of scriptures, my heart knew where to go spiritually that would remove me from the immediate anxiety. I mean it. You need to be able to go to your own spiritual realm. I just had to recover.
Did you think about life after death? Did it change your spiritual perspective being so close to the unknown?
I think I have given up that I would have a clear picture of life after death. I am very clear that we are not just our physical selves, though. I have absolutely nothing to say beyond that. [Laughs.] I personally believe that even here and now, we have glimpses of heaven when we see grace and amazing miracles. For instance, in paintings like Rembrandt and Michelangelo. How in God’s name can they be that brilliant? I see it in plays, movies, songs. I come from an artistic family. People are channels for so much more than they could have thought. So we have already been there a little bit. I figured that’s where I’m going — to that place where my sermons come from.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.