After losing their grandmother to COVID-19, the Christopher family launched a nonprofit to help to make virtual hospital visits as easy as possible.

By Maggie Seaver
June 15, 2020

The coronavirus has taken the lives of over 420,000 people worldwide to date. Adding salt to the wound of grief, social distancing efforts and hospital visitor restrictions have prevented people from visiting sick friends and relatives in person, and have kept many families from being physically present during their loved ones’ final moments.

On April 6, 2020, the Christopher family lost their beloved grandmother, Mary Virginia Howell Christopher, 97, to COVID-19 complications. The inability to visit Mary—whom the family lovingly nicknamed “Grambo”—during her time at Slidell Memorial Hospital was devastating, but the Christophers made sure to be with her virtually right until the end through video calls, as often as possible. 

Slidell Memorial Hospital (SMH) had a few iPads available for Zoom calls, but due to the growing number of patients and families trying to communicate with them, the demand for devices was high and tech capabilities were limited. “There was a limit to how often you could do a call and who could run the call,” Ryan explains. A tough reality for any family desperately trying to comfort a hospital-bound loved one—but the Christophers made it work with what they had.

On April 3, Ryan’s uncle, Joe Christopher, was finally able to get into the hospital to help set Mary up with his own iPad, and Ryan’s sister, Eli, used her work Zoom account so the whole family could join the call. From there, the amazing SMH staff helped the Christophers connect virtually with their grandmother each of her last four days. An amazing hospice nurse helped coordinate different calls on April 4 for several of Mary’s many devoted relatives, and another nurse facilitated their Zoom call the next day. 

“The nurse then set us up for the next Zoom call, but the soonest they could do was on April 7,” says Ryan. “Our sister-in-law who works for SMH was able to get in to see Grambo, and she operated the last call we had with Grambo before she passed away later that night.” 

These on-screen visits were simultaneously painful and wonderful: a bitter reinforcement of their distance, and at the same time a profound comfort and sense of closure for both grandmother and family during such a difficult time. A comfort the Christophers are now committed to bringing to other worried and grieving families through their newly launched nonprofit The Grambo Connection, whose mission is “to secure tablet devices for hospitals so loved ones can be connected in situations like this.”

“No one wants a family member to be alone when they’re passing from this world,” Eli shares. “We couldn't hold her hand, hug her, sit next to her, or give her words of reassurance. At the same time, I feared she thought she was alone, so being able to virtually call her to let her know she wasn’t alone, and that we were all with her at the same time helped all of us.”

Video conferencing technology has been an indispensable tool for everyone amid lockdown, but it’s been a particular saving grace for families like the Christophers. 

“I was able to have a one-on-one call with [Grambo] on April 4, during which I told her I loved her and was with her,” Ryan says. “It broke my heart that she had to go through that alone—we all would have been there in a heartbeat, were we able. It was incredibly unfair for her to go out like that, but I’m thankful we did get to talk to her.”

Ryan and Eli’s sister, Sara Christopher, says Mary would always ask her when she and her boyfriend were going to get engaged. After learning Grambo was sick, Sara says her boyfriend was moved to propose sooner, knowing how important sharing that moment with her grandmother had always been to her. Sara recalls him saying, “‘[T]his was not how I wanted to do this, but I know how much it means to you...'" before starting to cry and asking, "Will you marry me?” 

Later, on their family video call, Mary was able to hear the happy news, see Sara’s ring, and celebrate with them from afar. “I will cherish that moment forever,” Sara says. “I finally got to tell her I was engaged. If not for the nurses and the access they had to the iPads, I would never have been able to tell her.” 

After Mary’s death, Joey Christopher, another of her grandsons, raised over $500 for coronavirus relief, just from holding a 24-hour Twitch video game fundraiser (Amazon’s video game streaming service). “This inspired us all, and we realized we could do something to help others,” Ryan says of the spark behind The Grambo Connection. “Sara mentioned we should keep this going and the hospital could use more iPads. We had a few family brainstorms, as we were all eager to help those who were going through the same situation. We strongly felt we could help change communication in hospitals [even] after COVID-19.” 

It was a family effort through and through. Eli, a digital marketer, pitched the idea to SMH and created the website and logo; Ryan, a marketing director, handled copy and social media. Cousins Joey and Zack Christopher produced the launch video, and Sara, a nurse and photographer on the side, took charge of the visuals.

The Grambo Connection officially launched on May 24, what would have been Mary’s 98th birthday. The mission is to raise money through digital fundraisers to buy tablet devices to be donated to SMH and eventually other hospitals and healthcare facilities. They want to connect families, like theirs, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see each other during some of their hardest moments.

“Right now we’re raising money for SMH, but plan to apply for grants to help other hospitals, and are looking to identify which [ones] need help,” Ryan says. Currently, all donations to The Grambo Connection are directed to and managed by the SMH 501(c)(3)

Looking ahead, they hope to connect with organizations who can to help donate devices, too. “We also intend to become our own 501(c)(3) in the future, though it’s a little early for that,” Ryan adds. “We want 100 percent of donations to go to the cause, so right now it’s ideal to partner with others who’ve established 501(c)(3) non-profit status.”

Their non-profit is as much a timely charity initiative as it is a tribute to their treasured matriarch. A lifelong giver and active community member, Mary Christopher served as nurse in Europe during WWII, eventually being promoted to 1st Lieutenant, Chief Nurse at the 134th Evacuation Hospital. She continued working as a nurse for much of her life, later serving as a medical volunteer for as long as she was able. But above all, she was “Grambo,” the Christopher family’s “person” and “hero,” their glue. 

“Gram not only had so much energy throughout her life, she was patient, kind, thoughtful, giving and empathetic,” Ryan says. “Grambo would always make it clear to us to never give up, and no matter how bad a situation was, everything would be OK.”

The nickname says it all: a fusion of “Gram,” her original moniker, and Rambo, whose strengths as an action hero seemed, to young Rambo fan Eli, to echo Gram’s strength of character and devotion. When asked what Mary would think of all her adult kids’ and grandkids’ efforts right now, Eli says, “She would be proud of what we’re doing. She would also want to help.” 

Ryan suggested the name, The Grambo Connection, both to honor Mary and to convey the organization’s intentions to connect families. It’s also a nod to the song “The Rainbow Connection,” Ryan adds, something he used to play and sing on his grandmother’s piano growing up. 

The Christophers encourage families experiencing the same hardships to be vocal and proactive in finding ways to communicate with relatives in the hospital. “Be careful to not overwhelm the hospital staff with requests, but don’t be timid about your needs and wants because they want to help and are empathetic.”  

They also urge others to stay strong by staying connected, however they can. “Knowing you’re not going through this alone can be reassuring,” the family says. “We think allowing yourself to go through all the emotions is cathartic.” 

“In a way, these Zoom calls brought our family closer,” Sara says. “Since then, we’ve been keeping the Zoom calls going regularly. Much of our family lives in different states, and Grambo brought us all together.”

While video chatting can never fully replace the presence of loved ones by your hospital bed—or the ability to give a grandparent one last squeeze-of-the-hand goodbye—for those with access to it, it can help ease the heartache and bridge an immeasurable distance.

You can follow The Grambo Connection on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or head straight to the website to make a donation.