Doctor comforting elderly patient in viral photo speaks out

"I don't know what keeps me going. I don't know how I haven't broken down."

Doctor comforting elderly patient in viral photo speaks out
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Millions of people have now seen the heartbreaking photograph of a doctor comforting an elderly COVID-19 patient on Thanksgiving. Now the doctor from that image is speaking out about the emotional, and all-too-routine, encounter.

Dr. Joseph Varon is the chief medical officer at Houston's Memorial Medical Center.

He has worked 256 consecutive days during this coronavirus pandemic.

He works colleagues who are tired, burned out and in some cases, missing time with their children so that they can help keep COVID-19 patients alive. Now, an image capturing that sacrifice is going viral.


Speaking to CNN's John Berman on Monday morning, Dr. Varon explained what happened on Thanksgiving morning that led to the photograph.

"As I'm going inside my COVID unit, I see that this elderly patient is out of his bed and trying to get out of the room. He's crying. 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'."

Dr. Varon said he instinctively grabbed the man to comfort him. He didn't realize they were photographed until later.

The physician said that while he embraced the man, he was reminded of so many previous patients who all needed comforting.

"I was feeling very sorry for him. I was feeling sad, just like him, and I was just recollecting all the patients that I've had do similar things with."

Dr. Varon says that particular patient is doing well. They hope to send him home by the end of the week. But the fight against COVID-19 rages on.

"I've been working for 256 days today nonstop and I don't know what keeps me going. I don't know how I haven't broken down."

"My nurses have broken down," Dr. Varon continued. "My nurses cry in the middle of the day because they get so sad, sometimes for situations like this. Just seeing a patient that's crying because he wants to see his family."

Over 13.3 million Americans have contracted COVID-19. More than 266,000 have died.

Dr. Varon says he's frustrated with how so many lives have been needlessly lost.

"I do this, day in and day out, and people are out there doing the wrong thing. People are out there in bars, restaurants, malls, I mean, it's crazy."

"People don't listen," he continued. "Then they end up in my ICU."

If people are moved by the image of him holding his patient, Dr. Varon hopes they'll listen to medical guidance to help limit the transmission of COVID-19.

"They need to do the basic things. Keep your social distance, wear your mask, wash your hands, and avoid going to places that have a lot of people. It's very simple. If people can do that, healthcare workers like me will be able to hopefully rest."

Please, mamas. Let's do our part to keep our families and communities safe. Healthcare workers like Dr. Varon are depending on us. Our children are depending on us.

Jamie Orsini is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, military spouse, and a mom to two busy toddlers. In her spare time, Jamie volunteers with the Solar System Ambassador program with NASA/JPL and reads anything she can get her hands on. She’s currently working on her first novel.

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