Thursday, March 11, 2021, marks one year since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Over the last year, terms, like 'social distancing,' 'positivity rate' and 'COVID variant' have become part of our everyday conversations.
Life is vastly different than it was back then; almost unrecognizable, but now the norm. And there's the human toll. In Texas alone, the virus has claimed more than 45,000 lives. That number is more than a half million in the United States.
Healthcare workers have been on the front lines this past year fighting against COVID. KHOU's Xavier Walton spent time inside United Memorial Medical Center's COVID-19 ICU. Below are his reports of those healthcare workers and some of the patients they've cared for.
The pressure from the pandemic is enough to push anyone over the limit.
"It's always very hard because no one expects this," said Gabriel Cervera, a medical intern inside the United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 ICU. "He tested positive for COVID. We did a chest CT on him. He found that he had pneumonia so we admitted him. Fortunately, he has been responding to the treatment he's been feeling better."
"What sort of treatment are you giving him?" we asked.
"So we're giving him the math plus protocol. That's a treatment we do here," said Cervera. "It consists of a lot of steroids and vitamins."
Inside the COVID-19 ICU, Gabriel brings positive energy. But when he goes home he can't leave the negative pressure behind.
"Sometimes I cannot even rest at night because everything is in my head.
'Why did this happen? What's going to happen with the family?' It's hard," said Cervera.
"So you're not only physically drained, but emotionally as well?" we asked.
"Yeah that happens because sometimes it's frustrating. It's frustrating to see these people are dying very fast," said Cervera. "Some people are very young; despite all of our efforts."
Gabriel moved to Houston after he finished med school in Mexico. Like a lot of people, Gabriel didn't get a graduation ceremony because of COVID-19. And because of COVID-19, sometimes he questions if can continue going.
"I feel like drained emotionally, mentally, physically sometimes I just want to quit," said Cervera. "I think it's just too much. But then again, I wake up the next morning and think about the other patients we have and we still need to try for them."
It was three months ago, but Terry Peden remembers Christmas like it was yesterday.
He spent the holiday inside the United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 ICU.
"I had no idea," said Peden. "I followed all the right protocols."
Still he couldn't escape the spread of coronavirus controlling the country.
"There's no discrimination," said Peden. "It's no warning."
"At its worst what were you thinking?" we asked him. "What was going through your head when you were laying in the hospital bed unable to breathe?"
"When it finally dawned on me how bad it was, I honestly just thought about my kids," said Peden as he fought back tears. "I have a strong family support and I always wanted to raise my kids."
Terry is no stranger to pain. He says he's still healing from heartbreak. His wife passed away a couple years ago from a massive heart attack.
"God doesn't give you more than you can handle," he said.
A month to the day after we crossed paths with Mr. Peden in the COVID-19 ICU, we sat down with him by a pond near his home.
"You look a lot better than when I first met you," we said.
"Thanks Xavier. I feel a lot better," said Peden. "I got COVID with a double pneumonia so you can imagine, I was pretty sick."
"Everything happened so fast. I was well, then this disease hit me. It took me down, way down as you saw me in the hospital," said Peden. "We didn't know which way it was going to go."
Dr. Manuel Espinoza:
When Dr. Manuel Espinoza was admitted to the United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 ICU, he was extremely sick. Doctors at UMMC said, "He was 50/50."
Still, Dr. Espinoza never gave up hope.
"Did you ever see yourself in a hospital bed hooked up needing help?" we asked him. "You're the one that usually helps people right. Did you ever think you'd be the one needing help?"
"I didn't and I'll be quite honest with you," said Dr. Espinoza. "I'll be very humble. I didn't think it was as dangerous as I thought it was. I should've been more cautious."
Dr. Espinoza is a urologist in Edinburg, Texas..
"We're physicians. We have the heart of medicine," said Dr. Espinoza. "At the end of the day, it's about helping our patients to having a great outcome. If that means going off to the side a little bit then so be it."
Dr. Espinoza believes in science and medicine, but also believes in God. And when he's not treating patients physically, he's doing it spiritually. He's also the Pastor at the Collective Rio Grande Valley Church.
And while he was in the hospital bed in Houston, he had an army of prayer warriors behind him at home.
"I can tell you, it's been absolutely amazing to just see everyone come together and just lift me up, lift up my wife," said Dr. Espinoza. "She's been a warrior. My kids have been warriors. They've just been praying for dad."
And cell phone video captured the emotional moment everyone's prayers were answered as he was rolled in a wheelchair out of UMMC.
For a year now, the coronavirus has consumed everyday life. There are signs of the story everywhere. From the Internet to television, even commercials can't escape the spread.
It's been a constant reminder for everyone.
"It's scary," said Tanna Ingraham, a nurse inside the United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 ICU.
Ingraham has cared for hundreds of COVID-19 patients.
"We're all they have," said Ingraham. "They're sitting there stuck in a room."
As the virus has taken control of millions of people's lives once they're infected, Ingraham feels like she too is being held hostage by coronavirus.
"It's inevitable. I mean, all I do is think about, 'How are they doing? Are they progressing? Did they regress? Do we get them off the ventilator? Are they finally eating?' I'm constantly thinking about my patients," said Ingraham. "I'm constantly praying don't let me pass this onto my kids or my mom."
So far, those prayers from Tanna have been answered. Her kids and mother have not gotten coronavirus, but Tanna has had it twice.
"I was begging God honestly to let me go," said Ingraham. "It hurt and it was that miserable. And it's like 'I'm not wearing a mask. I'll be fine.' Okay, well tell that to my patients' family member who I just had to call. Tell it to my kids, who I didn't get to see. I still get teary eyed because I didn't see my kids for three months until I got sick."
Ingraham says the second time she had coronavirus was far worse. She went from being a nurse inside the UMMC COVID-19 ICU to being a patient.
"What keeps you coming back then?" we asked. "You didn't just get it once you get it twice and you're still..."
"I'll be back again," said Ingraham.
"It's why God put me here. It's what I do. I'm a servant. I'm a healer," said Ingraham. "You have to be somebody's ray of sunshine because I'll tell you what -- It's storming in here."
Dr. Joseph Varon:
For more than 350 consecutive days, Dr. Joseph Varon has entered the negative pressure COVID-19 ICU with a positive attitude. A year into the pandemic, he says he is running on adrenaline.
"I went to medical school for a reason. It was not for the money. I went to medical school to help people out," said Dr. Varon. "So I'm here helping, but you can imagine how frustrating it is that you want to help people; when you finish helping one and there are three others waiting in line to be saved. That is the part that frustrates me. But I have to keep on going."
"Emotionally, has it taken a toll on you?" we asked.
"I don't have time for emotions," said Dr. Varon. "That's the problem. When you are working so many hours a day there's no time for emotions."
HIs patients say otherwise.
"Just caring," said Peden, who is one of Dr. Varon's coronavirus patients. "Truly truly compassionate."
"As a patient, I can tell you I'm so thankful," said Dr. Espinoza, another one of Dr. Varon's coronavirus patients.
The day KHOU 11 toured the United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 ICU with Dr. Varon, he went into Room 406. In there was Ms. Castellano.
"Okay. que quiera. Salud da me. Uno. Dos. Tres." said Dr. Varon.
At that time, Ms. Castellano had a tracheotomy.
"I mean, this lady was, she came to us almost dead," said Dr. Varon. "This is one of those that you say no way, she beat all the odds. All the odds!"
Recently Ms. Castellano sent a photo and voice message to the team at the UMMC COVID-19 ICU updating them on how well she is doing.
"We threw in the kitchen sink as far medications go," said Dr. Varon. "This is why I went to medical school. Exactly people like her; people that have a future. She's trying. She's working with us to get better. This is what I like. She's amazing. Amazing!"