Photo Captures Anguish of COVID Patients … and Providers

The photograph captures the human anguish caused by COVID-19. The elderly man just wanted to go home and see his wife for Thanksgiving. A doctor tried to comfort him.

A photograph of a physician comforting an elderly COVID patient seems to have driven home the point of just how much of an emotional toll the coronavirus has taken. Hospitals are being swamped, as there were over 96,000 COVID hospitalizations yesterday, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That means there were over 96,000 stories of individuals dealing with the disease, and thousands of more stories about the healthcare providers trying to assist them.

The photo, circulated worldwide via the Internet, shows the patient at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, being comforted by Joseph Varon, MD, the hospital’s chief of staff.

Varon tells CNN that on Thanksgiving, he’d just happened to be passing the man’s hospital room when he saw that the patient was out of his bed, distraught, and crying. Varon tells CNN: “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’. So, I just grab him, I hold him, I did not know that I was being photographed at that time.”

Infection Control Today® has been reporting about the emotional toll caring for COVID-19 patients has taken on infection preventionists and other healthcare providers. And it’s not just doctors, nurses and providers who are usually on the hospital wards who have witnessed this heartbreak. In a Q&A with ICT® on November 13, Linda K. Groah, MSN, RN, CNOR, NEA-BC, FAAN, the CEO and executive director of the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), spoke about how operating room nurses at times in the pandemic have had to work on hospital wards. Groah said that “at the early onset of COVID-19, operating room nurses were retrained to go out and help on the nursing units. In critical care or in med-surg units. Not necessarily as the primary caregiver but as an assistant. So, some of them did experience that kind of an issue where a patient died, and they were holding the phone for the last conversation that that patient had with their family member.”

Varon tells CNN that “we have so many patients that sometimes we cannot hold every patient or grab the hand of a patient or at least try to be a little more human. Some of them cry, some of them try to escape—we actually had somebody that tried to escape through a window the other day.”

Varon says that he doesn’t know how he keeps going and he can see the emotional strain being place on other healthcare professionals at the hospital.

“My nurses have broken down,” he tells CNN. “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.”

In a Q&A with ICT® on September 30, Ernest Grant, PhD, the president of the American Nurses Association, strongly stressed the need for nurses and other healthcare providers to look out for their own physical and mental health. Grant said that unfortunately, too may healthcare providers “are not seeking the appropriate assistance that is offered to help deal with that. We are great at caring for patients, and others, but sometimes when it comes to caring for ourselves, we always put ourselves last. And in this case, the frontline workers need to recognize that it’s important that they take care of themselves first. Because you’ve got to operate at your optimum in order to take care of all the challenges that are going to come along. You’re not going to be very beneficial if you yourself are not up to par.”

Sometimes, though, COVID doesn’t let the weary rest. Varon tells CNN that he had been working 265 days nonstop. He says that the public needs to do the right things in terms of infection control and prevention—hand hygiene, social distancing, masking—and stay out of already overloaded hospitals.