Hospital staff ‘truly exhausted,’ says Texas doctor in viral hug photo

Through multiple masks, a face shield and a protective suit he likens to those worn by astronauts, Dr Joseph Varon bends over his Covid-19 patient and waves into the phone she is holding up.

At the other end of the video call, several loved ones express their delight at seeing the man who helped save Gloria Garcia from the disease that has killed more than 278,000 people in the US and counting.

Varon, the chief of staff at United Memorial, a small hospital that primarily treats minority patients in a low-income north Houston neighborhood, made headlines when a photo of him hugging an elderly Covid patient on Thanksgiving went viral.

The hug was a candid moment of empathy. And Varon’s wave to Garcia’s family is enthusiastic.

But make no mistake: the doctor is exhausted.

When AFP accompanied Varon on his rounds on Friday, it was his 260th straight day of work.

Even the few hours he steals at home each day are interrupted by endless phone calls. He sleeps, he says, no more than one or two hours a night.

“Don’t ask me how I can do this,” he adds.

Donuts play a role. He displays a box, adding: “Whatever they bring is what I will eat because you don’t know when you’re going to eat again.” He says he has gained 35 pounds (15 kilograms).

Outspoken and frustrated, Varon complained to the media as far back as July that he and his staff were running “on fumes.”

“My staff is very tired. My nurses, they will start crying in the middle of the day. They will break down because they are so overwhelmed with the number of cases we’re getting that they are truly exhausted,” he tells AFP. (AFP | Mark FELIX with Sarah Titterton)