Doctor seen comforting elderly COVID-19 patient in heartbreaking photo speaks

HOUSTON (CNN) - Millions of people have seen the picture of a Houston doctor comforting an elderly patient on Thanksgiving Day. That doctor is now speaking out about what happened that day and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Joseph Varon, the chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, was making his rounds in the COVID-19 unit on Thanksgiving Day when he saw a crying elderly patient trying to get out of the room.

“So, I get close to him, and I tell him, ‘Why are you crying?’ And the man says, ‘I want to be with my wife,’” said Varon in an interview with CNN.

The doctor, dressed in protective gear, grabbed the man and held him close. He says eventually, the patient felt better and stopped crying.

“It’s very difficult, you can imagine. You’re inside a room where people come in in spacesuits, and you have no communication with anybody else, only by phone if you’re lucky,” Varon said. “When you are an elderly individual, it’s even more difficult because you feel that you are alone. You feel isolated.”

Due to the isolation in the unit, Varon says patients often break down. He and his staff try to provide human contact, chatting with and comforting them, but he says there are simply too many patients for them to support everyone. Nurses, too, break down and cry during the day, Varon says.

The doctor has been working nonstop for more than 250 days.

“I don’t know what keeps me going. I don’t know how I haven’t broken down,” he said.

Thankfully, the patient in the picture is doing better and may be able to leave the hospital soon.

Varon says he is most frustrated that many people aren’t taking safety precautions against the virus. He recommends social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands and avoiding places with lots of people.

“If people can do that, healthcare workers like me will be able to, hopefully, rest,” he said.

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