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Dr. Eric Salazar, a Latino farmworkers' son, led one of the nation's new coronavirus therapies

The Mexican-American doctor and farmworkers' son grew up like many of his patients. "The fact that they are suffering is enough motivation to do everything you can do to fight this."
Image: Dr. Eric Salazar.
Dr. Eric Salazar.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News

Growing up in South Texas, Eric Salazar was well acquainted with hard work and sacrifice. For many years, his parents were farm workers. Then they worked in a pecan factory, where they helped with the harvest and cleaned and packaged the nuts for consumers. His family lived in Yancey, an unincorporated community west of San Antonio with a population of a few hundred people.

Today Dr. Eric Salazar works in the fourth most populous city in the country, at Houston Methodist Hospital, one of the doctors and researchers on the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. An assistant professor of Pathology and Genomic Medicine, the physician scientist said he owes his success to his parents. “I see my career as a reflection of applying my parents’ work ethic.”

Of Mexican-American descent, Salazar, 40, was originally a music major at St. Mary’s College in San Antonio. He played tuba and jazz bass, until he discovered biomedical research and became a double major in music and biology. In 2012, he graduated with an MD/PhD from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

As a Latino physician, Salazar is part of an elite group; a 2018 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that just 5.8 percent of active physicians are Latino.

The ongoing pandemic has changed Salazar’s work routine. Before coronavirus, his typical day was to see patients, teach medical residents and work on clinical projects. Lately he is more involved in clinical research, trying to optimize treatment for COVID-19 patients.

In March, Houston Methodist became the first academic medical center in the country to give critically ill patient convalescent plasma therapy, and Dr. Salazar was the principal investigator who led the project. This involves infusing critically ill COVID-19 patients with plasma donated from recovered patients. The idea is that the plasma from those who have recovered from the illness could contain antibodies that can help current patients. In August, Houston Methodist announced preliminary results suggesting that the experimental treatment could be effective in treating some coronavirus patients.

This type of treatment, Salazar noted, was used in the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, as well as in previous outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. While he is hopeful about a coronavirus vaccine, he explained that one advantage of convalescent plasma therapy is that it is potentially available now to those in need.

“We have been fortunate to have the Food and Drug Administration grant an emergency use authorization,” Salazar said. “But we are not only studying patients, we are examining data on the donor side, trying to figure out things like what constitutes the best plasma, the optimal timing and most effective level of antibodies.”

As of September 1, Latinos accounted for a majority of confirmed COVID-19 fatalities in Texas, according to Texas Health and Human Services data. Harris County, where Houston is situated, is one of the state’s hotspots for estimated active coronavirus cases.

“It’s difficult to prepare for something like this," said Salazar. "All of the knowledge that I have acquired along the way has been invaluable.”

This includes drawing on his training and background in clinical pathology, transfusion medicine and conducting research. Even the most mundane skills, he said, like knowing how to create spreadsheets in Excel, have been proved extremely useful.

As a health care worker, Salazar is battling to lowering the COVID-19 curve while making sure he protects his loved ones from any possible exposure.

Salazar credits his professional mentors and his wife, a music teacher, for helping him get through these challenging times.

“During this pandemic, the majority of my experiences has been with patients who are of Latin American background, many of them from similar circumstances like I grew up in,” Salazar said. “But seeing them – and patents of all backgrounds – gives me motivation. The fact that they are suffering is enough motivation to do everything you can do to fight this.”

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