There can be no vacation when a pandemic is tearing through the country, your covid-19 unit is filled with more than 45 patients and your staff is exhausted.
Varon’s passion for medicine has fueled his determination “to nail this thing to the ground.”
“I was meant to do this,” he told The Washington Post.
Varon is both a medical maverick and a kind spirit. Despite his media appearances in which he predicted this winter will be “the darkest days in modern American medical history,” he has maintained a cheerful disposition and a deep sense of purpose.
Varon’s tireless devotion was perhaps best illustrated by Go Nakamura, who photographed the PPE-clad doctor embracing an elderly patient whom Varon had found crying and asking to see his wife.
The image gained national attention after it was widely shared on social media.
As they watched their patients quickly deteriorate in the spring, Varon and four other critical care physicians and scientists joined efforts in researching and developing protocols for the prevention and treatment of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“This is a war-type situation where you don’t wait for the next bomb to drop on you, but rather you grab whatever you have available and fight back,” he said.” You don’t sit around and wait for the cure to fall from the sky.”
In hopes of avoiding patient intubation, they landed on a combination of treatments that they say significantly improves outcomes, including steroids, anticoagulants and ascorbic acid. Varon claims the treatment cocktail has kept the death rate of patients at UMCC about 6 percent over the course of the pandemic. The mortality rate in New York reached 25 percent in March, and has come down to 7.6 in August, according to a study of New York hospitals published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.
Born and raised in Mexico City, and with specialties in pneumonology, intensive care, internal medicine and geriatrics, Varon was particularly well-equipped to wage war against a virus that has killed more than 290,000 Americans.
His extensive credentials include a residency in internal medicine at Stanford University. He is the recipient of multiple awards, the latest a proclamation of “Dr. Joseph Varon Day” in Houston for his “his essential and outstanding work” on covid-19.
But his personal experiences, he said, also prepared him for this moment.
In 1985, he was working as an intern in one of Mexico City’s largest hospitals when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake leveled the building. He watched many of his colleagues die that day.
“I have seen disaster up front all of my life,” he said. “The only thing that scares me is corona” — a disease he calls “short-term AIDS” — and its unpredictability.
Mid-interview, Varon had to duck out. He followed up with a text:
“I just admitted 6 covid patients in the past 60 minutes,” he wrote. “It is absolute madness.”
As if the pandemic itself wasn’t enough of a challenge, some health-care workers have been grappling with a parallel phenomenon: disbelief in, or outright denial of, the coronavirus’s existence — even among some patients who are already infected with it.
Varon believes a widespread disregard to social distancing, use of masks and the politicizing of the disease are some of main reasons the country is experiencing such a dramatic surge of cases and hospitalizations.
Texas is no exception. With more than 1.3 million confirmed cases and over 23,000 covid-19 deaths, cities such as El Paso are seeing their hospitals overwhelmed and their medical staff overworked. Just a few weeks ago, Texas National Guard troops were deployed to El Paso to help with morgue operations as the city saw a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
Houston has also seen a steady increase of hospitalizations in the past month, raising alarms among experts. At the end of September, the UMCC covid-19 unit had three patients. It now has more than 45, Varon said.
The warnings about social distancing and wearing masks however, are falling on deaf ears, he says.
“It’s as if you watched people doing drugs, and you keep telling them to stop because it will kill them, and they keep doing in it in front of you,” he said. “It hurts.”
Over the months, Varon said he has treated dozens of covid-19 patients who, no matter how ill they are, refuse to acknowledge the virus is real.
Varon recalled a man in his 60s who worked as a security guard at the hospital and was an outspoken denier of the virus. He seized every opportunity to assert that the pandemic was a government hoax and almost never wore a mask.
The man eventually got infected and was hospitalized, Varon said.
As he gasped for air, the patient demanded Varon show him the document that proved he had covid-19. After showing him the test result, the man insisted it was false.
“It must be a false document, and what I have is pneumonia it’s not covid, it’s my asthma,” Varon recalled him saying.
The patient died within days.
As the imminent approval of the vaccine raises great hope for the fight against covid, Varon worries it will make people let their guards down.
“People are tired, they have fatigue syndrome and I am afraid they are going to think the vaccine is the answer when the answer is that we all do our job and part in controlling this pandemic,” he said.
But Varon’s pace has not slowed, despite pleas from his family and friends for him to take some time off.
“You are not superman,” Sara Varon, his wife of 34 years, told him one recent morning.
“Well these days, I have to be,” he replied.
But the secret to his remarkable endurance might reside in his humor.
As the medical staff at UMCC witnessed the psychological effects of isolation in patients, Varon instructed staff to wear large photographs of their faces hung around their necks, so that patients could recognize the person who was caring for them behind those “space suits.”
One day, he went in to see patients with a picture of Brad Pitt attached to his personal protective equipment suit, eliciting laughter from even those who were the sickest.
“Other doctors stay behind the lines, they do not get their hands dirty,” said Tanna Ingraham, an ICU nurse at UMCC hospital, who was also hospitalized with covid-19 for 12 days. “He is totally hands-on and treats every single one of his patients as if they were his family members.”
Varon made headlines in 2005 when he took an unorthodox approach to a drowning victim: He purposefully lowered the patient’s body temperature to 90 degrees and kept him cold for three days, an unusually long time for therapeutic hypothermia.
As the patient had virtually no chances of survival when he arrived at the hospital, Varon admits it was a long shot. But the patient fully recovered.
St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston, where Varon was practicing at the time, put him under review for using the treatment on several patients, he said, and concluded that he deviated from their standard of care.
“Most doctors are rigid, they do things one way and are very resistant to change, their default thinking is ‘It is not going to work,’" said Stephen Barnes, an attorney and board certified surgeon, who is also a close friend of Varon. “He always keeps an open mind.”
Varon is keeping an open mind about the coronavirus, too, urging health officials to review the prophylactic potential of Ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat parasitic worms. A vaccine will take months before it becomes widely available to the public, and he believes the drug could save lives in the meantime.
It’s not approved for coronavirus and the National Institutes of Health recommends against it, except in clinical trials. But Varon wants to throw everything we have at this pandemic — an example of his stubborn work ethic.
“His dream come true will be the day he beats the virus back down with a combination of vaccine and medicine that you give people early before they get sick,” Barnes said. “Like a deer hunter, he wants to kill it and put it over his fireplace.”