Tech-savvy priest links families with dying patients

In this April 15, 2020 photo, Father Gabriel Ghanoum, PsyD., Mdiv., GCC, Boca Raton, talks about his role in palliative care and last rites at JFK Medical Center during an interview at St. Nicolas Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Delray Beach, Fla. Life continues for many Floridians under a stay-at-home order that at least last through mid-May. Father Ghanoum has connected via his cell phone grieving family members when he delivers the Sacrament of the Sick to those close to dying from COVID-19.

On this April 15, 2020 picture, Father Gabriel Ghanoum, PsyD., Mdiv., GCC, Boca Raton, talks about his position in palliative care and final rites at JFK Medical Middle throughout an interview at St. Nicolas Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Delray Seaside, Fla. Life continues for a lot of Floridians underneath a stay-at-home order that at the least final by mid-Could. Father Ghanoum has related through his mobile phone grieving relations when he delivers the Sacrament of the Sick to these near dying from COVID-19.

Thomas Cordy

The priest’s cellphone buzzed once more as he was visiting coronavirus sufferers.

An hour earlier that day, April 1, he had given final rites to yet one more COVID-19 affected person at JFK Medical Middle. However now he was wanted once more, in one other room within the intensive care unit.

So the Rev. Gabriel Ghanoum repeated his routine — solemn, brave and tragically all too acquainted — as a humble and technologically savvy hospital chaplain on the entrance traces of the coronavirus pandemic.

He slipped his freshly scrubbed palms inside surgical gloves. He pulled a hospital robe over his cleric’s collar. He shrouded his face with protecting masks.

And as he walked right into a room the place the one sounds have been the woosh and hum of a ventilator, he pulled out his smartphone. It was sealed inside a transparent sandwich bag.

Urgent buttons by plastic, he dialed a girl in Austin, Texas, patched her brother in Atlanta onto the decision and put them on speakerphone.

Together with his left hand, he raised the cellphone above the face of Tom Craciun, 77, a champion swimmer in his prime now within the closing moments of a dropping battle with the lethal respiratory illness.

His gloved proper hand holding Craciun’s, he recited the Sacrament of the Sick — “Our Lord Jesus Christ who promised by the apostle James, is there anybody sick amongst you? …”

When he completed, he stood in silence. And the voices of grieving youngsters and grandchildren, crying out of his cellphone from the seclusion of their properties in two completely different states, mentioned closing goodbyes.

Then the priest hung up his cellphone. Alone now with a nurse and the affected person, he sang by his face masks a religious hymn — “I’ve determined to observe Jesus … no turning again … the world behind me, the cross earlier than me. …”

“I stored singing till his final breath,″ the priest later recalled.

When it was over, after Craciun had peacefully “transitioned” (he doesn’t say the phrase “died”), the priest headed again to the principle flooring, his cellphone tucked inside his pocket.

About an hour later, it could buzz once more.


Father Gabriel, as Ghanoum has come to be identified in his 9 years as JFK’s hospital chaplain, has the title of an angel. And that’s precisely what he’s to so many grieving kinfolk barred from the hospital due to strict customer prohibitions because of the threat of COVID-19.

Unable to bodily be current for a liked one’s closing moments, they at the least get some semblance of closure, digital but emotional, because of the courageous and selfless act of a person they’ve by no means met.

“Probably the most great priest, like he got here down from heaven,” Craciun’s daughter, Nancy Jean Pierce, would later say.

However Father Gabriel can be a mortal, a 67-year-old man not proof against an invisible illness that has killed greater than 100 individuals, most of them aged, in Palm Seaside County since March 14.

Twenty-one of the county’s first 112 deaths have been at JFK, information from the Palm Seaside County Medical Examiner’s Workplace present. Ghanoum mentioned he has administered final rites to about 10 of the hospital’s COVID sufferers.

“Each expertise may be very humbling and really highly effective,” he mentioned, “since you come to know the legacies, the tales, of the dying, but in addition of the residing. You turn out to be the religious and emotional archivist.”

It’s harmful, too.

Internationally, together with South Florida, COVID-19 has claimed individuals battling it on the entrance traces — docs, nurses, law enforcement officials and firefighters, even religious advisers. In Italy, the illness’s first Western epicenter after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December, practically 100 clergymen have died from COVID-19.

Ghanoum mentioned he’s not conscious of native clergymen who might have died after contracting the illness whereas praying with coronavirus sufferers.

However he mentioned he considers it not solely his obligation however a privilege to cowl up in protecting private tools and serve alongside “the brave docs and nurses at JFK.”

“The second you’ve got concern, then you definately can’t be close to,” he mentioned. “It’s a must to have belief in what you’re doing. The principle aim is bringing within the household that can’t see their family members and telling them, ‘We’re in it collectively. You aren’t alone.’”


At many hospitals, chaplains supply counsel and prayer from the protection of a cellphone or from behind a door, taking no probabilities on a illness that strikes silently and out of the blue.

Ghanoum mentioned he respects his religious friends who take such precautions. He prefers a extra artistic strategy, one which makes use of know-how to each stop what he calls “the illness of separation” and promote JFK’s motto through the disaster: “Nobody dies alone.”

“If my liked one is within the hospital and I can’t see her or him and be current with them, that actually is including to my struggling,” he mentioned. “When households are separated from their liked one, it could possibly turn out to be like a illness.”

The pandemic has compelled JFK’s palliative care staff, which Ghanoum heads, to “get artistic” and “suppose outdoors the field,” he mentioned.

“COVID has modified the whole lot,” he mentioned. “There’s a new actuality.”

One the place know-how and spirituality intersect.

Utilizing his smartphone and apps like Zoom and FaceTime as clerical devices, Ghanoum serves because the “emotional proxy” between the dying and their fast household, who can just about watch or hear as final rites are administered within the ICU room.

“I put myself of their footwear and we deliver them in to allow them to be a part of it,” he mentioned. “We turn out to be the human on behalf of the liked one on the surface, whether or not they’re native, or like (the Craciun) household in Austin, or elsewhere.”

He mentioned he tried it for the primary time in early March, with out-of-town kinfolk of a non-COVID affected person who was dying at JFK. Inspired by the constructive response from the household, he determined to strive it once more after the hospital went on lockdown.

He has executed it about 15 instances, the bulk with coronavirus sufferers.


Sure, Ghanoum acknowledges, the method requires him to face on the bedsides of sufferers contagious with a harmful illness. However he factors out that different members of JFK’s staff are already doing that.

“If the nurses and docs and respiratory techs are on the entrance line, I must be there, too,” he mentioned in an accent thick along with his Egyptian roots.

He mentioned he follows the identical protocols because the docs and nurses. He covers up in a medical robe, “bunny swimsuit,” foot coverings, and two face masks, together with an N-95 masks — a course of that takes about 15 minutes.

“It’s fearlessness with prudence,” he mentioned, smiling, “not fearlessness with craziness.”

When he walks into an ICU room, he seems to be like a health care provider or nurse, not a priest. (He’s a licensed psychologist with a doctoral diploma from the Graduate Theological Basis in Mishawaka, Ind., so likes to suppose he’s not too far faraway from his JFK friends.)

“In my pocket, in a blessing bag, I carry a rosary blessed in Rome. That pocket rosary offers me power,” he mentioned.

His presence at JFK affords inspiration to docs and nurses, a lot of whom have been decreased to tears by COVID’s unrelenting toll. Some pray with Ghanoum throughout their shifts. He leads four-minute meditation workouts which have turn out to be vital retailers.

“Father Gabriel, you’re a blessing. Thanks to your care,” Susan Hanson, a JFK doctor, wrote on his LinkedIn web page earlier this month.

“I’m all the time in awe of him,” Rabbi Joanna Tract, a member of JFK’s palliative care staff, mentioned in an interview.


The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the primary time he has confronted hazard and demise.

In 1985, seven years earlier than he was ordained, Gabriel Ghanoum was a 32-year-old financial institution govt primarily based in Mexico Metropolis. After midnight someday in September, he returned dwelling from a enterprise journey in Europe, three hours late due to flight delays.

He was trying ahead to having the subsequent break day. However, stressed from jet lag, he couldn’t go to sleep. At 6:30 a.m., after tossing and turning, he determined to move to his workplace downtown, about 30 minutes away, to test mail and cellphone messages and seize breakfast.

“I didn’t must work that day,” he mentioned, “however I adopted my instincts. One thing was telling me to maneuver.”

As he approached downtown, he heard what appeared like a bomb exploding. As close by buildings have been collapsing from the violence of a 8.0-magnitude earthquake, he jumped from his automobile and ran to the Museo de Palacio de Bellas Artes (Museum of the Palace of Effective Arts) for defense.

The quake lasted 13 seconds and killed greater than 5,000 individuals.

After pulling survivors from the rubble, he realized that his personal home had been destroyed, his canine killed, crushed by the collapse of a constructing subsequent door.

He puzzled what may need occurred to him if he had fallen asleep the night time earlier than.

“The earthquake in Mexico was a turning level for me,” he mentioned. “I used to be questioning the aim and which means of my life.”

The concept of the priesthood, which he had thought of as an adolescent, took maintain. Inside just a few years, he offered his belongings and went to seminary faculty. By 1993, he was ordained at St. Jude Catholic Church in Miami, the place he stayed for 18 years.

“I’ve by no means regretted my resolution,” mentioned Ghanoum, now head pastor at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Delray Seaside.


At JFK, the place he turned chaplain in 2010, Ghanoum leads a convention name each morning with docs and nurses on the palliative care staff.

They talk about progress being made by COVID-19 sufferers, updates that give the priest an thought of whom to go to first. Many days are difficult and intense.

“We’re used to getting in and lots of instances we will have a win and somebody will get higher and we see household pleased and elated,” mentioned Tract, who restricts her personal entry to coronavirus sufferers and households over the cellphone.

“However with the COVID numbers,” she mentioned, “it makes it way more tough to see anyone get higher and to see a household be capable to have a good time.”

For the reason that pandemic began killing individuals in Palm Seaside County, Ghanoum mentioned two days have stood out as significantly “heavy” and “tough.”

On April 1, he gave the final rites to a few sufferers, one earlier than and after Craciun.

Three days later, on April 4, he did it for 3 extra sufferers, together with Jose Diaz Ayala, a sergeant with the Palm Seaside County Sheriff’s Workplace. The workplace tweeted a photograph, taken by Ghanoum, of JFK docs and nurses standing over an American flag in Ayala’s honor.

Due to legal guidelines defending private medical data, Ghanoum mentioned he couldn’t determine or talk about the opposite COVID-19 sufferers he prayed with, saying solely that he organized for some households to look at him administer the final rites on FaceTime.


The priest mentioned he has gotten to know many different households. He has helped make funeral preparations and gather their family members’ belongings.

He mentioned Ayala’s kinfolk thanked him for his compassion and requested him to officiate at his funeral service at a later date.

A few days earlier than Craciun died, at Ghanoum’s suggestion, Craciun’s daughter and son, together with their very own youngsters, made audio recordings of their private goodbyes to the dying man.

From their properties in Texas and Georgia, they texted the recordsdata to Ghanoum, who performed the recordings on his cellphone, which he held subsequent to Craciun’s ear earlier than he died. Craciun, on a ventilator, was barely acutely aware however Ghanoum mentioned he felt the dying man’s hand transfer as {one of the} grandchildren mentioned goodbye.

“I broke down,” he mentioned. “I cried.”

After enjoying the audio recordings, Ghanoum referred to as Pierce and her brother, put them on speakerphone and administered final rites to their father. He supplied to make use of FaceTime however the Craciun youngsters declined.

The expertise was “so unusual that you simply really feel such as you’re dreaming it,” mentioned Jon Paul Craciun of Atlanta. “It’s surreal that you may lose a member of the family and never be with them.”

However he additionally mentioned that he and his sister have deep gratitude for the selfless and invaluable service Ghanoum offered them.

Someday, when the pandemic is gone, the Craciun youngsters plan to ask Ghanoum for dinner at her dad’s South Palm Seaside apartment, which Jon Paul has inherited.

“This has been a blessing and a really humbling expertise,” mentioned Ghanoum, who mentioned he relaxes each night time in his Boca Raton house by listening to Gregorian and Byzantine chants, opera and classical music.

“This story will not be about me,” he mentioned. “That is about ‘we,’ how you are able to do good and see good in others. I hope it could possibly encourage different individuals to do good on the planet.”

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