Arnold Vargas and Frank Gabrin. ‘I saw [Gabrin] the happiest with Angel,’ said Eddy Soffer. Photograph: Arnold Vargas
“I saw [Gabrin] the happiest with Ángel,” said Soffer, using Vargas’s middle name, as Gabrin did. “All his fear dissipated and he became his true self.”
“I think it gave me a second chance,” said Vargas, now 28. “He showed me the light – how beautiful my life can be.” He had been miserable, in a rut, yet Gabrin pushed him to train in massage therapy and to apply for US citizenship. There was an age difference, but to Vargas, whofelt enriched by Gabrin and his experiences, it was irrelevant. “I was always thinking, ‘I just want to make you happy,’ and he did the same for me.”
They married in August 2019 at city hall in New York.
‘It’s not going to be this way forever’
When infections in New York surged
in March, Gabrin posted a picture of ambulances crowding a hospital bay on Facebook. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is the moment Armageddon happens,’” said Debra Vasalech Lyons, another old friend. “He said, ‘No, it’s still manageable, but it’s not going to be this way forever.’”
St John’s Episcopal in Queens, one of two hospitals where Gabrin worked at the time, was among local facilities “dealing with challenges around PPE”, said the New York city council member Donovan Richards. The hospital says it has always had enough equipment for staff.
Richards linked difficult conditions there to historic discrimination and underresourcing in the largely African American and Hispanic district. “When America gets a cold, black and brown communities get pneumonia,” Richards said. “But in this instance, we are getting death sentences.”
The other hospital at which Gabrin was employed,
East Orange General in New Jersey, served a majority African American community, and also had a devoted staff that before the virus had struggled to maintain care standards.
In conversations with his husband and friends in mid- and late March, including in text messages shared with the Guardian, Gabrin said he had to reuse his PPE because he did not receive replacements. He told Lyons that he was attempting to wash an N95 mask to make it last several shifts, and that the only gloves available were too small for his hands and ripped.
Lyons mailed him gloves in the correct size from Florida, where she lives, and ordered four gallons of hand sanitizer for him. On Facebook, Gabrin wrote about concocting his own sanitizer from vodka and aloe vera plants.
The heads of the two emergency rooms where Gabrin worked both said they had sufficient supplies of protective equipment.
“I know for one thing he wasn’t speaking about a lack of PPE at St John’s,” said Dr Teddy Lee, the ER chairman there.
“If for a second I thought that was our problem at East Orange I would tell you otherwise,” said the ER chairman, Dr Alvaro Alban.
On 25 March, when Gabrin arrived home, “he said, ‘Baby, something bad happened tonight,’” Vargas recalled. A coronavirus patient with whom Gabrin formed a deep connection had passed away. Gabrin took a shower and cried, then he and Vargas offered a prayer for the person’s soul.
The next morning, a Thursday, they both had symptoms, and self-quarantined. “It was me using the same mask for four days in a row that infected me,” he texted Lyons. Through the weekend their cases seemed mild. Gabrin coughed and had joint aches, but didn’t have significant respiratory issues. On Monday, though, Gabrin was in greater pain and spent the day in bed.
Frank Gabrin’s messages to Debra Vasalech Lyons. Photograph: Debra Vasalech Lyons
At about 10am on Tuesday, he woke Vargas and said, “Baby, I can’t breathe, help me.”
He was gasping for air in great, hoarse breaths, but could not get enough oxygen. Vargas called Lyons and 911. But by the time paramedics arrived, Gabrin was on the edge of death, or had already gone. His face had turned purple.
Frank “passed away in my arms”, Vargas said. “He was looking into my eyes.”
Vargas himself eventually recovered. On Tuesday, two weeks after Gabrin’s death, the doctor will be buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens.
Owing to the need for physical distancing, Vargas was told, only 10 mourners will be allowed.
The headstone, Vargas expects, will bear a middle name that Gabrin adopted thanks to his decades-old interest in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. That name, Pinchas, now seems poignant.
It comes from a biblical figure who halted a plague.