Venezuela oil woes take toll on hospitals Country in crisis

Mr Jose Villarroel waits for hours in an emergency operating room at Luis Razetti Hospital in Barcelona, one of the most notorious among Venezuela's collapsing hospitals.
Mr Jose Villarroel waits for hours in an emergency operating room at Luis Razetti Hospital in Barcelona, one of the most notorious among Venezuela's collapsing hospitals.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Staff struggle with blackouts, supply shortage, broken machines, pilferage

BARCELONA (Venezuela) • By morning, three newborns were already dead.

The day had begun with the usual hazards: chronic shortages of antibiotics, intravenous solutions, even food. Then a blackout swept over the city, shutting down the respirators in the maternity ward.

Doctors kept ailing infants alive by pumping air into their lungs by hand for hours. By nightfall, four more newborns had died.

"The death of a baby is our daily bread," said Dr Osleidy Camejo, a surgeon in the nation's capital, Caracas, referring to the toll from Venezuela's collapsing hospitals.

Hospital wards have become crucibles where the forces tearing Venezuela apart have converged. Gloves and soap have vanished from some hospitals. Often, cancer medicines are found only on the black market.

  • Country in crisis

  • VENEZUELA • Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, yet its government saved little money for hard times when oil prices were high.

    Now that prices have collapsed, the consequences are casting a destructive shadow across the South American country.

    Lines for food, long a feature of life in Venezuela, now erupt into looting. The country's currency is nearly worthless.

    The crisis is aggravated by a political feud between the leftists, who control the presidency, and their rivals in Congress.

    The public health emergency is just part of the wider economic crisis - a larger unravelling that has become so severe that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has imposed a state of emergency and raised fears of a government collapse.

    NEW YORK TIMES

At the University of the Andes Hospital in the mountain city of Merida, there was not enough water to wash blood from the operating table. Doctors preparing for surgery cleaned their hands with bottles of seltzer water.

"It is like something from the 19th century," said Dr Christian Pino, a surgeon at the hospital.

The rate of death among babies under a month old increased more than a hundredfold in public hospitals run by the Health Ministry, to just over 2 per cent last year from 0.02 per cent in 2012, according to a government report provided by lawmakers.

The death rate among new mothers in those hospitals increased by almost five times in the same period, according to the report.

Here in the Caribbean port town of Barcelona, two premature infants died recently on the way to the main public clinic because the ambulance had no oxygen tanks. The hospital has no fully functioning X-ray or kidney dialysis machines .

It is a battlefield clinic in a country where there is no war.

The President's opponents declared a humanitarian crisis in January, and this month passed a law that would allow Venezuela to accept international aid to prop up the healthcare system.

"This is criminal, that we can sit in a country with this much oil, and people are dying for lack of antibiotics," says Ms Oneida Guaipe, a lawmaker and former hospital union leader.

But Mr Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded President Hugo Chavez, rejected the effort, calling it a bid to undermine him and privatise the hospital system. "I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one," Mr Maduro said.

Among Venezuela's failing hospitals, Luis Razetti Hospital in Barcelona has become one of the most notorious. "Some come here healthy, and they leave dead," said Dr Leandro Perez.

Last month, the authorities arrested its director, Dr Aquiles Martínez, accusing him of stealing equipment, including machines to treat respiratory illnesses, as well as intravenous solutions and 127 boxes of medicine.

The pharmacy has bare shelves because of a shortage of imports, which the government can no longer afford. Doctors hand relatives a list of medicines needed. Loved ones are then sent to find black-market sellers who have the goods.

A hallhas become an impromptu ward, but with no beds.

On the fourth floor, one patient, Ms Rosa Parucho, 68, got a bed, though the rotting mattress had left her back covered in sores. Ms Parucho, a diabetic, was unable to receive kidney dialysis because the machines were broken.

"The bacteria are not dying; they are growing," said Dr Freddy Diaz, noting that the three antibiotics she needed were unavailable for months. He paused. "We will have to remove her feet."

And for the past 21/2 months, the hospital has not had a way to print X-rays. So patients use a smartphone to take a picture of their scans and take them to the doctor.

"It looks like tuberculosis," said an emergency room doctor looking at the scan of a lung on a cellphone. "But I can't tell. The quality is bad."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Venezuela oil woes take toll on hospitals Country in crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe