Photographer Go Nakamura has visited a COVID-19 intensive care unit in Houston about 20 times, but he never gets used to what he sees there.

Taking photos too graphic to share; seeing patients one day who will be gone when he returns later in the week – there’s no getting used to that, he told USA TODAY on Saturday.

But on Thanksgiving, Nakamura captured an image of compassion that has gained national attention as the United States reels under a record number of daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The photo shows Dr. Joseph Varon, clad in protective equipment, embracing a patient who has collapsed into his arms. 

Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 26 in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Go Nakamura, Getty Images)

In the moments before the photo was taken, the patient was clearly feeling “vulnerable … lonely,” Nakamura said. 

The patient had confused the photographer with a medical professional. Soon, those professionals arrived to help.

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Varon often gets close to patients, in Nakamura’s experience. The doctor is known for offering cheerful words of encouragement. But a hug is something rarely seen.

Nakamura was focused on capturing the moment, so he didn’t hear the soft words spoken after the shutter clicked. But based on his experience at the United Memorial Medical Center, he’s sure they were kind and comforting.

To the public, Varon has offered different words: “America is going to see the darkest days in modern American medical history” if the nation doesn’t “do things right” in coming weeks.

That was his message to CNN on Wednesday, hours before the Thanksgiving image was captured.

He told the network he has worked for more than 250 days straight. He said his hospital is full and is increasing capacity, bracing for an expected surge in cases following the holiday.

Nakamura plans to continue documenting, knowing he will see more of the same: patients on life support; “people suffering and dying.”

But through it all Nakamura pays tribute to those on the front lines: “I am grateful to witness a wonderful moment and I thank all the medical staffs for their hard work even during the holiday season,” he wrote as he shared the photo on social media.


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