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Texas Doctor Tells Story Depicting A Future After COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The scale of this pandemic can be overwhelming.

SAYED TABATABAI: It's been like nothing I've ever experienced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here's how Dr. Sayed Tabatabai describes it.

TABATABAI: It's been frankly somewhat terrifying at times, and it's been really something that I think is exacting a toll.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's a kidney specialist in San Antonio, Texas, and has been caring for patients with COVID-19. He also writes stories, stories about what he's seen in the ICU, stories that help him process what's happening.

TABATABAI: This feeling that there are two parallel worlds. There's a world in the hospital, and the world outside the hospital where it's hard to explain the people kind of what's going on. And that's been actually one of the driving motivations the stories I write.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He does much of that writing on Twitter. On Monday, he posted a new thread a bit of speculative fiction.

TABATABAI: There's something about that sort of looking back at COVID, how it changed us and the decisions we made. I think it resonates. And in a strange way even though it's science fiction, I think it might make it a little more real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We asked Tabatabai to read us his short story, the scene a hotel and conference center in the year 2060.

TABATABAI: (Reading) It isn't easy being 80 years old. Things don't work like they used to. People don't treat you like they used to. I'm standing before the shower in my hotel room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character) Temperature.

TABATABAI: (Reading) A voice asks me. Warm but not too hot, I answer. The shower starts. The water's perfect. The doors slide open, and I step into the main lobby. The banner is large, covering the main entrance archway, COVID-19 echoes from the past. People smile at me as I slowly make my way. I nod and smile in return. We're all masked here. They're just invisible, masks made by nanotechnology, see through and almost impossible to feel. The only way you know someone is wearing one is a green light on their ID badge. If you're not wearing one at this conference, you get a flashing red light and a quick visit from a detox team. I enter the main lecture hall. There is an eerie silence. Of course, I'm one of the few people attending in person. Most people don't risk crowds anymore. They haven't for decades. I make my way to an empty seat on the stage and sit down. The moderator welcomes me. People want to know what it was like. I understand that. Since COVID-19, there have been several others - COVID-35, FluVar-59 (ph). But people want to know about the original. After all, our original mistakes are what changed everything, original scent. The first lecture is presenting the so-called American aberrancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...That the coronavirus pandemic is running rampant in many parts of this country.

TABATABAI: (Reading) It's hard to describe to people nowadays what that mindset was like. Global warming has destroyed most of our nationalistic tendencies. We survive together. I wrote down notes on cards. Archaic, I know, but I like the way they feel. I described those first few news broadcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Chinese health authorities are still working to identify the virus behind a pneumonia outbreak in the central city of Wuhan.

TABATABAI: (Reading) The denial that ran rampant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The number of cases has increased to 44.

TABATABAI: (Reading) The data and the disinformation. I know the vast majority of what I say sounds too bizarre to be true. People questioning masks...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You cannot mandate somebody to wear a mask knowing that that mask is killing people.

TABATABAI: (Reading) Questioning distancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We're just living for the moment.

TABATABAI: (Reading) Reopening despite the data.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The science should not stand in the way of this. And...

TABATABAI: (Reading) I finished my remarks on a note of hope. I described the vaccines and therapies that brought us out of the darkness and helped mitigate the subsequent waves. I described the investment in our health care systems and the massive societal overhauls as change finally came. Afterwards, I'm making my way back to the elevator. A young woman walks up to greet me. She says her name and says she is a medical student and wanted to ask me a question but not in front of everyone. I smile and say hello. It's nice to talk to a person in the flesh. You said you lost people you knew. I nod. Almost everyone did in the end. Everyone knew someone. Did you lose something, too, a part of you? I know what she's asking. We rarely discuss it. Some scars never leave you. I smile and say nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Sayed Tabatabai, an author and clinical nephrologist in San Antonio, Texas, reading from his fictional Twitter thread.

TABATABAI: It does paint a grim picture, but it's only one future. And I think it's in our hands to make a better one.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.