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A Houston doctor worked 715 days without a break once COVID was declared a pandemic

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

What's it like to work more than 700 days in a row without a break? Dr. Joseph Varon knows. In the three years since COVID was declared a pandemic, the chief of critical care at Houston's United Memorial Medical Center spent most of that time in the emergency room that he manages. And he has seen a lot. Doctor, you have worked 715 days without a break. In sheer physical terms, what kept you going?

JOSEPH VARON: I mean, you know, knowing that people were dying, people needed help and that nobody else wanted to care for patients. I mean, for us, it was so difficult to work in a situation where our own colleagues, our own friends would say, I'm not going into a COVID unit. I'm not going to go there because I'm risking my life. So somebody had to do it.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. But, I mean, you were risking your life, too. So what made you say, I'm just going to do it - out of obligation of being a doctor?

VARON: I mean, you know, I guess that's what I signed up for, for medicine, when I went into medical school. I mean, I didn't do it for the money. I did it for helping people. And somebody had to do it. If not, you know, it was a disaster that was going to happen, and, you know, more people were going to die.

MARTÍNEZ: I just want to be clear. You took a vacation - right? - when your child got married. So at least you got to see that, right?

VARON: Yeah, I was able to - marry my kid (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Perfect. Perfect. That works out, I guess. Now, I want to take you back to early 2020, before we really knew anything about the virus. What was it like getting up every morning and going into work those early days, when there was a lot of confusion going on?

VARON: You know, at the beginning it was, OK, this is going to end relatively soon, you know? This is just a small period of time. And eventually, this is not going to happen again. But at some point in time, you're starting to see every day is the same and the same and the same. And there is, like, no end in sight. That was the most scary situation. I mean, I would - you know, I would leave the home at 4:30, 5 o' clock in the morning. I would come back at 10 o' clock at night every single day. And, you know, phone call after phone call after phone call, people getting transferred to us from all over the place, I mean, a hospital that was full of patients. My nurses crying in the middle of the day because, you know, they would see two or three patients die back to back. I mean, it was tough.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Doctor, I'm sure patients and people just had questions for you. I mean, they look at you as a doctor for answers. What were you telling them?

VARON: The answers that we had at the time. You know, one of the problems that we had, as you well know, was COVID became a political show. it was not a medical issue; it was a political show. And the patients and the families didn't know who to believe. They would hear something from the president and something from Fauci, then something from the CDC or the, you know - or anybody else. And everybody was saying something completely opposite. So people were very confused - patients, families, everyone.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, over the course of the pandemic, I'm pretty sure you've had to push through a lot of grief. And I got to believe, too, that you also saw some of the best of humanity as well. What sorts of coping mechanisms did you have to learn on the job, not only just from fellow responders but also from patients and their families as well?

VARON: Well, I mean, we saw everything. I mean, you know, we saw from people that were camping outside the hospital, literally camping, just to be close to their family members because we have this policy of not letting anybody in...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

VARON: ...All the way up to us having to do things that would be different. I mean, for example, we did a music video in our own unit because I needed to keep my nurses all happy and be able to cope with what we're seeing every day. I mean, we looked at ways to help.

MARTÍNEZ: One of the toughest things I remember from that time is seeing family members look at their dying relatives through a window because that's as far as they can get to them.

VARON: It was terrible. I mean, you have no idea. I mean, being inside that unit, it changed my entire life.

MARTÍNEZ: So how has the pandemic changed emergency medicine and emergency care in broader terms?

VARON: Well, I mean, one thing that we have recognized is that nobody is in agreement anymore. We - you know, some people start doing something, and then you say, oh, maybe this is not the way to do it. I don't know if you remember when, you know, the governor of New York was asking for respirators, respirators, respirator.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

VARON: And then we realized that, hey - guess what? Every time you put somebody on a respirator, they don't make it. So maybe we need to look at other ways to do things. So we started to think outside the box. And some of us did it quite well and had good results.

MARTÍNEZ: I remember when California sent respirators to New York, a lot of people in California were wondering, wait a second, what if we need the respirators here? And as you mentioned earlier, it became a political issue. Doctor, three years into the pandemic, nearly 7 million people have died worldwide, a little more than a million of those in the United States. Are we as a country and as a global community now better prepared for another outbreak or pandemic?

VARON: No, I don't think so. I think that we are the same level we were, if not worse, because we are more politicized. We are more divided. We don't have a uniform voice anymore.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you see any hope anywhere?

VARON: There is always hope. And, you know, as long as there are people like me that want to keep on helping people, we'll find a way.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of critical care at Houston's United Memorial Medical Center. Doctor, thank you.

VARON: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.