HEALTH

Venezuela's ill languish for months, often die, in hospitals lacking basic equipment

At Caracas University Hospital (HUC), the shortage of medical supplies is beyond painful.

Dozens of patients here have been waiting for months to undergo surgery as their health continues to deteriorate.

In many cases, their lives are at risk and they are asked to bring their own medical supplies. Doctors say they want to help but can’t.

A physician who asked to remain anonymous told Fox News Latino this week that they are only performing emergency operations at this time due to the acute shortage of the most basic supplies and instruments at the state-run facility.

“We don’t even have stitching material, gauze pads or medical solution and most of the equipment for anesthesia is broken,” he said. “If the patient brings everything, we try to operate.”

This and other HUC physicians Fox News Latino spoke to were reluctant to give their names for fear of retaliation from the director, who is a staunch supporter of the socialist government.

Even though wealthier Venezuelans can get health care at private hospitals, those are also increasingly short of supplies and patients typically end up buying the needed items overseas.

Meanwhile, at this onetime top-rated hospital, patients and their families agonize in despair.

“My mom has three obstructed arteries and needs an open-heart surgery. We have been waiting four months because the hospital doesn’t have the necessary equipment for the procedure,” said Carmen Rangel, 44, who came to the capital all the way from the state of Trujillo seeking treatment for her mother. 

Rangel said she has been sleeping on the floor beside her mother’s bed, located in a shared area, for the entire four months.

According to data provided by Dr. Jose Felix Oletta, a physician and former Health Minister, in 2014 the death rate among discharged patients across Venezuela's public hospitals was 2.5 for every 100. In 2015, he said, the number jumped to almost 32 for every 100 — a 1,156 percent increase.

But death is not the only problem these patients face. Some survive but end up with serious complications and collateral problems that could have been prevented.

“I came to the hospital in January with spondylosis [a degeneration of the spinal column]. I needed surgery right away, but the procedure was delayed until April 20,” Pedro Merchan, 52, told FNL. “During that time I stopped walking and now I need a major rehabilitation that doctors don’t know how much time will take.”

Merchan said he had to spend more than 80,000 bolivars (which equals $72 in the black market and $183 in the official exchange rate and is approximately six months-worth of minimum wage salary) to buy his own supplies.

“When I got everything, they asked for more because the hospital didn’t even have alcohol. Just like that, four months had gone by,” he said.

But not everyone has that kind of money, and those with more serious diagnoses are up against astronomical sums.

“The supplies for my mother’s surgery cost more than a million bolivars. I just don’t know how to get that much money,” Rangel said, adding that just this past Wednesday morning three people died on her floor because of the lack of supplies.

“I saw their families as they went through this and there was nothing I could do,” she said. 

The area where she is staying has a heavily deteriorated public bathroom, with some of the toilets broken for months. “Contaminated restroom,” reads a sign posted at the door.

Contamination is also an issue in areas of the hospital where cleanliness is most critical.

The Neonatology Department, where newborns are treated, is said to be lacking proper sterilization due to the widespread shortages.

“Some babies are dying of infections that could have been prevented,” a doctor who works in that area told FNL. “So far this year, 46 newborns have died, including nine just this month,” the doctor said.

The situation at Caracas’ HUC is seen in medical facilities throughout the country.

“The death rate among newborns climbed from 0.1 percent in 2014 to 2 percent in 2015. Numbers will be worse this year,” Oletta, the former health minister, said.

But the deterioration at HUC, once the pride among the medical community, stands out.

During this week’s visit, Fox News Latino also found the pediatric ER there has been closed for six months for “renovations” and kids who need urgent care are being taken to the 9th floor — despite the fact that’s just one elevator is working at the hospital.

“Last week we were 48 hours without electricity in that area. We had to perform CPR to a patient illuminating him with a flashlight. Luckily, he survived. Doctors have to push things to the limit here,” said a physician from the pediatric wing.

And yet the situation at the Caracas hospital is better than in other cities, where people seem to have just have given up hope.

“Some doctors [in Trujillo] suggested just discharging my mother,” Rangel said. “But I didn’t want that. If I take her back to Trujillo she will die. From here [HUC] she will either come out fully healed or dead.”

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter & Instagram