He felt sure he knew how he contracted the virus, Gabrin wrote in a text message to his best friend.
“It was me using the same mask for four days in a row that infected me,” he typed.
“That is a friggen travesty,” his friend, Debra Vasalech Lyons, responded. “Should never happen! Can we check in with each other daily? I want to be sure you guys are okay.”
When he died of covid-19 on March 31, Gabrin became the first emergency room doctor in the United States to die of the illness, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. His strong suspicion that he contracted the disease while re-wearing a mask, which is meant to be used only once, underscores health-care workers’ dire need for personal protective equipment as virus-stricken patients flood hospitals.
The states where Gabrin practiced medicine have been particularly hard-hit in the pandemic. Gabrin, 60, had worked at East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey since September, as well as St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in the Queens borough of New York City.
St. John’s officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether Gabrin had access to adequate protective equipment there. East Orange hospital administrators said they were mourning the loss of the “beloved” doctor and “are committed to ensuring the safety of our patients, staff and physicians.”
“We currently have sufficient staffing, supplies and equipment — including N95 respirators and face masks — on hand to care for patients,” the administrators said in a statement.
Gabrin knew the physical and psychological risks of working in an emergency room, Lyons said. When they met two decades ago through a volunteer experience, Gabrin was recovering from feeling burned out by the medical profession’s intense demands.
As a “jump up and down, save the world kind of human,” Lyons said Gabrin had a Type A, passionate personality that drove him to pour his whole self into healing others. Until he met his husband, Lyons said, Gabrin’s life revolved around his patients and trying to ease the strain on other health-care workers.
“I don’t think he was ever going to be anything but someone who helped people,” Lyons said.
Gabrin grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and earned degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. After graduating from medical school in 1985, he served for a year in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps in New York City.
Faces of the dead
When testicular cancer struck in 1987, Gabrin beat it. It returned 10 years later, and he survived again.
After decades of singleness, Gabrin met his now-husband, Arnold (Ángel) Vargas, at a club in 2018. Gabrin complimented Vargas on his earring, and the pair hit it off from there. They married about a year later.
“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, wait until we’re ready,’ ” Lyons said. “He was ready.”
The couple spent the early months of their marriage traveling to Puerto Rico and France, and holding hands wherever they went, Vargas said. They lived together in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York and planned to have children.
When they watched the 2004 movie “The Notebook,” Gabrin compared him and Vargas to the main characters, who grow old together and die on the same night while holding hands.
“We were supposed to die like that,” Vargas said. “He was supposed to die with me.”
In addition to caring for his husband, Gabrin looked after his colleagues. Once a week, Lyons said Gabrin made a huge quantity of lasagna, stew or soup that flowed over the stove and forced Gabrin to reach into his closet for additional storage containers.
Then he brought the packages of chili or his “famous” potato soup to the hospital and doled them out to the doctors and nurses.
Lyons said Gabrin would tell her: “It’s like Mom’s soup. It’s way better than anybody else’s because you put love in it.”
That enthusiasm carried over into everything Gabrin did. He would brew a cup of coffee and exclaim that not only was it good, but it was the best coffee in the whole world. He sent Lyons notes with cartoon-style doodles of Snoopy or Krypto the Superdog.
“He could see the light in anything,” Lyons said. “He would laugh at just about anything.”
Roughly 12 days before he died, Gabrin told Lyons that the soap and hand sanitizer supplies at work were dwindling. They had run out of large rubber gloves, and the smaller ones broke when Gabrin tried to stretch them over his hands.
Gabrin developed mild symptoms of covid-19 a week later, but told Lyons that he was glad he had the illness so that he hopefully would be immune while treating patients at the peak of the crisis.
He woke up gasping and struggling to breathe March 31. Although Vargas called 911, Gabrin died before they arrived.
Lyons and Vargas are collaborating to create a foundation for health-care workers in Gabrin’s honor. They’re still ironing out the details, but they know it will focus on helping doctors and nurses to safely heal others — just as Gabrin would have wanted.