Twenty-four years ago, when he was told he had just six months to live, Peter Gromoff went, as he put it, “monastery shopping.”
His exploits as a nomadic bachelor would have blemished the conscience of most of the faithful; he admits he had tucked God out of sight and mind in the years before.
While living in Detroit in 1988, he visited a doctor to determine why he had been unable to shake the symptoms of what he thought was the flu. When two doctors entered the room, he knew the news would be bad.
He suspected he had cancer.
He was told he was H.I.V. positive.
“I absolutely lost it,” he said. “I went to my car and cried like a baby.”
Now an ordained priest and known as the Rev. Peter Gromoff, he says he cannot say for certain how he contracted H.I.V., but he suspects it was time spent moonlighting as a hematology lab technician, one of several jobs he held for the first 33 years of his life.
“The hardest thing in the beginning was seeing the phobia,” Father Gromoff said. “I lost every single friend. Nobody would come over to the house. And the other stigma was that if you’re H.I.V. positive, you’ve obviously done something wrong, and this is God’s punishment.”
He decided to live out what he expected to be the last of his days at the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension in Resaca, Ga. The monastery, one of many he researched, was part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and known for caring for dying men and preparing their burials. The monastery accepted only two or three patients at a time.
“I thought: that’s perfect,” he said. “I’ll go help them, and then when it’s my turn, my time, they’ll take care of me.”
Following the successful petitioning for acceptance into brotherhood, he moved into the monastery, where he met a doctor who helped him enroll in Medicare and Medicaid. He began taking a cocktail of drugs that was still experimental at the time, a treatment that he credits with saving his life.
“But it’s the diabetes that killed me,” he said half in jest, explaining that the H.I.V. medication that freed him from his initial death sentence also activated diabetes, which ran in his family. For the past 15 years, there have been no traces of H.I.V. in his blood, though he still takes medicine every day.
He remained at the monastery as a monk for 10 years until he was transferred to New York City in 1998, where a year later, he was ordained a priest, serving a congregation in Midwood, Brooklyn. “Frankly, I think the only reason I’m alive is because of that step I took, committing my life to God,” he said.
In 2001, complications from diabetes sent Father Gromoff into septic shock. When he awoke in a hospital bed days later, he was missing a body part.
“They did an emergency amputation of my left foot,” he recalled. “I had woken up and saw the stump but thought I was dreaming, and went back to sleep. I woke up, realized it was real and started yelling.”
In 2009, the front of his right foot, including all of his toes, was also amputated because of an infection from an ingrown toenail.
Though he is still active in the Eastern Orthodox community, where he offers counseling to those in need, Father Gromoff is unable to move about without a motorized wheelchair; this prevents him from working as much as he used to, and he receives far fewer honorariums to help pay the bills. Each month, he relies on $1,055 in Social Security disability payments, as well as $200 in food stamps.
In April, Father Gromoff fell behind on utility payments to Consolidated Edison by $241. His social worker connected him with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York, one of seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. Met Council secured him a grant from the fund to cover the shortfall.
“One of the biggest problems with any kind of long-term illness is depression, despondency, worthlessness,” he said. “My faith saved me from despair. God’s not a vending machine where you insert three prayers, pull, and you get results. It’s a synergistic relationship. You can’t just ask God for things, you have to cooperate with him. You can’t buy stuff like that.”