(CNN)It sometimes seems like the country's attention is shifting away from Covid-19's devastating death toll, which is projected to reach 200,000 by October, as several states see record numbers of cases on a daily basis. Today, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to his longtime friend and colleague Dr. Nick Boulis about what was it was like to work inside Emory University's Covid-19 intensive care unit and watch the deadly power of this disease firsthand.
'It's a Little Bit Like Living on Mars': Inside a Covid-19 ICU. Dr. Sanjay Gupta's coronavirus podcast for June 17
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Dr. Nick Boulis, associate professor, Emory University department of neurosurgery: The thing about the ICU is, it's like you're visiting your executioner. But every time you gown up and you go in there and you're examining these patients, or you're doing a procedure on these patients you're — you're looking at your potential fate, which is really ugly.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Dr. Nick Boulis is a friend of mine. We trained together as neurosurgeons and we now work together at Emory University's School of Medicine.
Recently, Nick volunteered for several shifts on Emory's Covid-19 intensive care unit. I asked him to record some of his thoughts and his observations from the experience.
Boulis: I was just in there talking with, uh, my patient, who's a Covid nurse who was infected, and, uh, she's coughing. I can just see the cloud of virus coming out of her mouth. So that's the first time I've actually felt scared.
Gupta: Typically as doctors, even when we're taking care of the sickest patients, we're not at risk ourselves, from getting sick or even dying. I can tell you, as a neurosurgeon myself, the type of work that Nick was doing in that Covid-19 ICU was very different from what he normally does.
And on top of that, as of Saturday, cases of coronavirus have been increasing in 18 states.
So today I wanted to take a moment and look again at where the critical work is being done to fight this virus that is now projected to take 200,000 lives by October. I wanted to share Nick's experience because it is a stark reminder that this pandemic is far from over.
I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. And this is "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction."
I'll take this opportunity to tell the audience that Nick and I have known each other for over a quarter century now. Hard to believe. And you're a neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon. You specialize in operations of the brain and the central nervous system and the peripheral nerves and all that.
And yet, most hospitals in the country, pretty quickly, became Covid hospitals primarily taking care of Covid patients. So what do you, as a specialist of the brain and the spinal cord, do in a situation like this? How — what is your role at that point?
Boulis: So first and foremost, I began adapting my own behavior for life in this hostile environment. It's a little bit like living on Mars, right? You wouldn't go out without your, your spacesuit on, your appropriate protective gear. Suddenly, the world became a fundamentally hostile environment. And in some environments, more hostile than others.
And so my first role was to try to communicate to my friends and do so through social media. Simply say, "This is how I'm dealing with this. If any of you are scared and wondering how you should behave, I can't tell you the right way, but I can tell you how I'm dealing with it."
And I think as doctors, it was incumbent on us to be outspoken about what we believed to be the right way to handle this on a national level, on a local level, at the level of the hospital, and then to do so, and I think that that last piece involved behaving in a fashion that was effectively irreproachable with regard to accepting responsibility, personally.
That, for me, led into initially volunteering to help the residents and then volunteering in the Covid units, which are quite different than what I do on a daily basis.
Gupta: We also, I think, are obligated in some ways to remind people that the virus is still out there. It hasn't really changed. It still poses a huge threat. Some states are now seeing record numbers of cases being reported.
And so I want to play a bit of one of your recordings where you talk specifically about what this disease does to the body.
Boulis: I mean, this disease doesn't just kill you. It guts you. It f---ing tries to smother you. And then it tears through your body and it takes chunks out of your various organs.
And either you come out the other side and you might be whole or you might have little pieces of you scattered around or maybe you're dead.
Gupta: It's tough to hear. And I think a lot of people, especially people who, who haven't worked in hospitals, haven't really been exposed to anyone who's had this disease, it really is eye opening in terms of how, how deadly and also how significant the disease is in terms of what it does to the body.
Can you describe what you saw? What was going through your mind?
Boulis: One thing's for sure, though, those days were exhausting in a way that it's exhausting to be in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. But you absolutely have to communicate.
You know, we, I, I think we're making great strides in understanding this disease, but it felt like this was a tornado, like a hurricane blowing through. And you just hunker down and maybe you make it to the other side. But there's going to be destruction, you know?
Notably, you know, thinking about the nurse who came into the ICU, and watching her trying to breathe through this thing, proning her, you know, dealing with her back pain and her discomfort in these various positions and watching her fight this thing and then watching her lose and go on the ventilator.
It's hard to separate yourself from it. Because she's there, because she was doing exactly what you're doing.