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U.S. Is Expected To Reach 200,000 COVID-19 Deaths Very Soon

NOEL KING, HOST:

Almost 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. We called two men who've been on MORNING EDITION before to ask how they are coping. They're front-line workers. Dr. Joseph Varon is the chief of critical care at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, and Rocky Walker is a chaplain at Mount Sinai in New York. Last time we talked to Rocky, he said he was leaning heavily on his faith to get him through this.

ROCKY WALKER: Having that faith in God anchoring everything that's going on around me and always having that to turn back to, knowing that there's nothing too big for God nor is there anything too small for God, that is absolutely keeping me through this pandemic.

KING: Dr. Varon, how about you?

JOSEPH VARON: I'm living on adrenaline. I mean, I'm going and going and going - and also, the sense that if I don't do what I'm doing right now, nobody else is going to. Also, you know, I make a lot of inappropriate jokes and stuff like that, which, again, it's another mechanism that I have. And I try to just make fun, you know? We even recently made a music video in the COVID unit just to literally go crazy and let our nurses go on because I have seen nurses cry in the middle of the day - I mean, just start crying because they cannot cope. When we were having a lot of patients, you know, dying, it was one after the other, I mean. And there was a period of time where the health care providers would be breaking down.

KING: Is there a particular person or family that, when we come through this - when this pandemic is over - you know you will not be able to get out of your head for the rest of your life?

WALKER: Rocky, let me start with you. The one that jumps out to me the most - I had a husband and a wife. They were sort of elderly but not really elderly. They both came in as patients, and we were very deliberate in keeping them in separate rooms because, at the family's request, they didn't want the one to see the other one suffering. Yeah, it's details like that that are just heartbreaking even now just to go back and remember, you know.

As this virus does, their health would go up and down. And we were having to have family meetings with the family to say, OK, we don't think this one is going to make it, and we need to make plans. But the other one is stable. And every time we did that - every single time we did that, the one who'd we didn't think would make it became stable, and the other one would immediately get worse. And this is a family who had already lost two uncles and a cousin. And now we have mother and father. And we have son who was trying to hold it together for everyone, and he had his own challenges.

Eventually, we lost both, you know. And in the middle of that, this family - we could not let them come into the hospital at the time. And they probably don't realize it, but they're in my heart for the rest of my life. I remember the Zoom calls, the FaceTimes, the telephone calls after the Zoom call just to check in. I remember the screams. And both patients were very resilient, and they fought the hard fight. So we ended up being with them for a lot of time. And when you get close to a family, anybody, you put yourself in their position. You know, as we rounded on the family, as we watched their health go up and down and knew we were going to have to call them with updates - and you get so close to them. And you're like - and we're trying to everything. We're trying everything, and nothing's working. And then you're just thinking, oh, my God, what if this was me?

KING: Yeah, what if this was me? What if this was my parents? It's really hard.

Doctor Varon, is there a particular family or person that you're going to have a hard time forgetting, that you'll always remember?

VARON: Well, you know, it's interesting because as COVID has been something so unique, I have actual - I remember every single one of them. From the funny ones, for example, I have also husband and wife. But you know, we went ahead and we put them in the same room. So the next morning, I come in, and I check on the wife. Like, how are you doing? - stuff like that. And then I go and check on the husband, and the husband tells me, please, get me to another room. I don't want to be with this woman. So I'm serious. I mean, those are things that you get to remember.

Then of course I have a lot of very similar situations. We have a young man who came in. He have given COVID to his father and his mother, and they both died. And he didn't know that they have died, and he was extremely ill. We thought we were going to lose him because, you know, at some point in time, he even wanted to kill himself because he was so depressed about his own condition. So we were reluctant to tell him that his parents had died because of the severe depression that he had.

At some point in time, we had to break it out to him that they had died. And for him, obviously, he knew that he had given it to them. Literally, he had killed them. I mean, what do you tell him? You tell him, no - you know, this is not - this is not your fault. We really don't know if it was you the one that got them ill. We really don't know if, you know - they probably got infected by some other way. And, you know, the fact is that your parents had some preexisting conditions. They have other issues. I mean, those are the things that I tried to do.

But this man was, of course, destroyed. And even before we told him, I mean, he was already so sick of being sick. We have him in the hospital, like, 56 days.

KING: Oh, my God.

VARON: We didn't think he was going to make it. And he remarkably - and miraculously, I would say - he survived. I mean, he survived, and he left to his home just to find out the same day as we were releasing him that, you know, his parents had died. And he never even made it to the funeral. I mean, that's the kind of stuff that will stick with our brains for the rest of our lives because we see it day in and day out.

KING: Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of critical care at Houston's United Memorial Medical Center, and Rocky Walker, a chaplain at Mount Sinai in New York. Thank you both so much for taking the time to do this. We really appreciate it.

VARON: My pleasure.

WALKER: Thank you very much.

VARON: Actually, I like this format in which the two of us, you know, representing our own independent views. But at the end of the day, we're saying exactly the same thing. That was actually beautiful - beautiful.

WALKER: It was. It was. And I appreciate your work that you're doing down there in Houston. God bless you, and I'm praying for you and with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDMUND'S "ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.