Now a doctor, former Memorial athlete and musician helping fight COVID-19

Ryan Huebinger found enjoyment in being part of a team while he was in high school.

The former McAllen Memorial football player and cellist said that was one of the reasons he is now an emergency room doctor at two different hospitals in Houston.

“I enjoy the team-based approach to treating people now,” Huebinger said. “That concept really translates over to emergency medicine. You can’t take care of a trauma person without surgeons, nurses, techs and others. It takes a lot of hands to save a life.”

The recent COVID-19 pandemic, however, has shaken the medical and healthcare community to its core.

What do you do when you have a team facing a seemingly unbeatable foe, one with no pre-game film available or effective game plan drawn up?

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“I think one of the biggest things is wishing we can do more. It’s quite hard seeing these people get sick and not be able to do anything other than support them and cross our fingers,” Huebinger said. “Unfortunately, sometimes a ventilator is just a means to an end.

“It ends up being up to the person — is one person able to fight it off better than the others. It’s fear inducing and frustrating to not be able to have a treatment.”

Huebinger has been an emergency physician for seven years now, which translates to more than 25,000 patients seen during that span. After graduating from Memorial in 2005, he attended and graduated from Texas A&M. While being an ER physician, Huebinger is also an assistant professor for emergency medicine at UT Health’s McGovern Medical School in Houston, the seventh largest medical school in the United States. He also serves the emergency rooms at the Memorial Hermann at Texas Medical Center and Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.

He said he was highly influenced by a myriad of mentors throughout his high school career, especially McAllen Memorial football coach and Brown Middle School orchestra instructor Benjamin Ponder.

“A lot of coaches would have pushed me as a football player to make a decision — football or band,” said Huebinger, who played one year at defensive tackle and another at center for the Mustangs. “I’ve always been appreciative that coach (Bill) Littleton was always supportive of me being in both of those. He never said a word of doing one or the other.

“He came to my senior recital and I think that was the first time he had been to something like that. It was really cool to see my football coach and cello teacher in the same room — two very different sides of my life in one place. It’s what makes him a great leader and coach. He didn’t force you, he adapted with who you were and he was a great mentor and developed young men.”

Huebinger has returned to the Valley on occasion with his wife Iona, a dermatologist and skin surgeon. He had the opportunity to introduce her to his former cello instructor and plans to introduce her, and catch up with, Littleton.

“Ryan was a great person and very committed to the program,” Littleton said. “He had an excellent senior season, was a great student and excellent cello player.

“He learned value in football — hard work, teamwork, a never-give-up attitude and commitment to a cause — that he still holds today. He’s the type of person you would want your child to be like. It was a privilege to coach him.”

Huebinger said that even though he and his wife work a lot, especially in these days, they have found things to do during this era of social distancing. Whether it’s going for a walk or reading. He still plays the cello and they both like to cook.

“I cook maybe a tiny bit more than her,” he said. “But she loves to bake and she makes these raspberry chocolate crumbles. They’re amazing.”

Huebinger also teaches and gives lectures to medical students, including financial direction because “doctors are terrible with money,” he said.

“We can’t get together, but we use video communication — we try to support each other and be interesting and as light-hearted as possible,” he added. “None of us would want to be called to duty for what is going on but it is what we trained to do.”

Huebinger said he will continue what he’s doing, something he’s passionate about despite the ongoing pandemic. But, no matter what, there are still fears and concerns that run through him and all those on the frontlines battling COVID-19 one way or another.

“Being able to do research and trying to work on it gives me hope — there’s a lot of fear in the unknown,” he said. “We work with a bunch of people and any person of any group at any age can be infected — is it me or the person next to me — who will get sick? I’ve never seen anything that comes close to this.

“I feel like we, the state of Texas, have done very good at flattening the curve so far. Time will tell if we will be able to keep this up and prevent too big of a surge. It is a hard time for people. We all want everything to go back to normal, but we have to do the right thing so people don’t die.”