The emotional moment was captured on Thanksgiving Day by photographer Go Nakamura, who was in the covid ward documenting the pandemic for Getty Images.
The image circulated widely online over the weekend after Nakamura posted it on Facebook, resonating with the pain and struggle of millions of Americans, patients and health workers alike as the country reels from soaring coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.
“I am grateful to witness a wonderful moment and I thank all the medical staffs for their hard work even during the holiday season,” Nakamura wrote on Facebook.
The post has since been shared hundreds of times and prompted heartfelt reactions from users on social media.
“I am so glad the photo went viral because people are talking about what is really happening inside of hospitals,” Nakamura told The Washington Post.
“I believe the photo can be the door to certain people so they can start to realize what is going on and what the reality is in the world right now,” he said, referring to the skepticism about the severity of the coronavirus and the extent of the crisis that persists among many Americans.
Nakamura was standing in the corner of the intensive care unit room when the encounter unfolded. He swiftly took his camera out and started shooting, trying to capture a moment that symbolized both the anguish and loneliness felt by so many patients separated from their loved ones for days on end, as well as the quiet, often unnoticed acts of compassion by medical workers.
The photographer has visited the medical center more than 20 times and said he has witnessed many acts of generosity by Varon, whom he described as a “warm, big-hearted person,” as well as his staff members.
“I was feeling sad, just like him, and I was just recollecting all the patients that I have had to do similar things with,” Varon told CNN on Monday.
“I would go into their rooms, sit on their beds and chat with them because they truly need somebody,” he said, adding that covid patients often cry and that some have even tried to escape the hospital, unable to bear the sting of isolation.
The man depicted in the photograph is recovering and is expected to be discharged this week, Varon said.
But with the surge of infections overwhelming hospitals across Texas, health workers at the United Memorial Medical Center are sometimes incapable of offering more comfort to their patients, Varon said.
Last week, Texas reported the nation’s second-highest number of infections in a single day, with 16,100 — about 1,000 more cases than a previous high. The state has reached more than 1,200,000 cases and more than 21,000 deaths, according to data gathered by The Post.
Amid the surge, the strain on health workers and hospitals is growing as well, pushing many to their limits.
Varon, who says he has worked for more than 250 days straight, has repeatedly warned about the severity of the crisis in the state and pleaded with people to acknowledge the danger of the virus and follow preventive measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
But no relief seems to be on the horizon, with health workers and experts expecting an even bigger surge in cases following the holiday.
Just a day before Thanksgiving, Varon sent a chilling warning in an interview with CNN. If people refuse “to do the right thing,” he said, “America will face the darkest days in modern American medical history.”
Nakamura’s photograph offered a glimpse of what those days might look like.