Sick Venezuelans struggle to survive amid crumbling health system, lack of care


JUDY WOODRUFF: We now return to our series
Inside Venezuela. The South American country is in the midst
of a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. And under that weight, its health
care system is collapsing. With support from the Pulitzer Center, special
correspondent Marcia Biggs went undercover to film this report. And a warning: This story contains disturbing
images. MARCIA BIGGS: This photograph was taken just
five years ago, happier and healthier times. Do you remember this day? But now Jose Rodriguez is dying. Two years
ago, he was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, and only six months ago, he found out he was
actually suffering from a different lung infection. His daughter, Paula Conchila, is a nurse,
but stopped working to take of her father. PAULA CONCHILA, Daughter (through translator):
That’s why I feel so angry, because I have tried to help him, but it’s impossible. I
don’t have the supplies. MARCIA BIGGS: Jose is on a treatment with
several different medications, including an antibiotic that costs around $5, the monthly
minimum wage in Venezuela. PAULA CONCHILA (through translator): If we
spend money on medicine, then we don’t have any money for his supplies. And with the cost
of transportation when I have to take him to the doctor, we don’t have money to pay
for all this. We have different jobs, but it’s not enough.
This country is killing us. MARCIA BIGGS: And Venezuela’s health care
system is incapable of saving them. A shortage of drugs, doctors and nurses and even clean
water has led to an epidemic of illnesses, a lack of treatment, a complete breakdown. And families like Jose’s no longer trust the
system. DR. DORA COLMENARES, General Surgeon (through
translator): That patient you’re describing, he’s one of thousands. We, as doctors, have
observed this. Before, they went to the hospitals. Now they prefer to die at home. MARCIA BIGGS: Dr. Dora Colmenares is a general
surgeon in Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela, once an oil boomtown now in
ruins, paralyzed by a gas shortage and rolling blackouts, which leave the city in the dark
on a daily basis and are catastrophic for a hospital. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
We are living like we were living in the 19th century, when the hospitals didn’t have water,
when there was no electricity. MARCIA BIGGS: She took us undercover into
a public hospital to show us just how bad it’s gotten. We had to conceal our identities
and shoot on cell phones and hidden cameras because of government-supporting vigilantes
called colectivos stationed in hospitals. They’re often armed and monitor who comes
and goes. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
It was risky for me, of course, but I don’t have anything else to lose. I don’t have anything
else to lose. MARCIA BIGGS: This is the emergency room,
overcrowded with people, only open during the day and lacking proper supplies or even
air conditioning. Often, patients are forced to navigate up and down staircases, sometimes
climbing as high as nine floors, with no functioning elevators. In one Maracaibo hospital, the elevator was
working, but a dialysis patient was crushed last October when the elevator plunged as
she was trying to exit. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
The elevator cut her in half. All of this because of the lack of maintenance. And nothing
changes. She died, and that’s it. One more. MARCIA BIGGS: Was there any investigation
or anything done about this? DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
No, no, no. They tried to keep everything under wraps. And, in time, it just disappears. MARCIA BIGGS: We reached out to the Ministry
of Health, but received no response. Back in the hospital, we found empty shelves,
broken equipment, the ceiling was caving in, and a pharmacy with almost no medicine. Entire
sections are locked and abandoned, the remains of a functioning health care center. Many of the doctors have left too. At public
hospitals like this one, they earn less than $10 a month. And faced with these conditions,
many have already joined the almost five million Venezuelans who’ve fled the country. Dr. Colmenares says, of last year’s graduating
class of 800 doctors at the university where she teaches, only 80 remain. And that’s not
to mention all the techs, nurses, and support staff who have also left. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
Ninety percent of the labs in this state are closed because there are no lab chemicals,
and most of the professionals who manage the labs have left. X-rays, in this state, 95
percent of the machines don’t work. We don’t have scanners or MRIs. MARCIA BIGGS: And it’s not just in Maracaibo.
In the country’s capital, Caracas, again undercover, we visited an oncology center with Dr. Gabriel
Romero. There was only one functioning X-ray machine
and one ultrasound for the entire hospital. There was no running water. No soap, no water to keep things clean. That’s
why it smells so bad in here. This area has been shut for more than a year
because of water damage. What is this? This is empty. The radiotherapy department is empty of patients.
Dr. Romero says this technology is antiquated. This machine came from Argentina 15 years
ago and only serves as palliative care. Some machines don’t work at all. Dr. Romero says
there is no money for service, so machines and technicians sit idle for years. DR. GABRIEL ROMERO, Oncologist: I don’t have
the key. MARCIA BIGGS: You don’t even have the key
to this room? DR. GABRIEL ROMERO: Yes. MARCIA BIGGS: How long has this door been
shut? DR. GABRIEL ROMERO: Five years? Seven years? MARCIA BIGGS: Five years? DR. GABRIEL ROMERO: Yes. Yes. MARCIA BIGGS: And the 100 or so patients that
used to be there daily are gone to another hospital or not getting treated at all. In this room, women receive chemotherapy,
but for a treatment that requires a consistent drug regimen, there is not a consistent supply
of drugs. “My brother had to bring chemotherapy medicine
from Houston because we don’t have it here,” says this woman, who has lung cancer. All these women brought their own supplies,
rubber gloves, intravenous tubing, even hospital gowns. This woman is doing chemotherapy for ovarian
cancer. She had to bring her own water. She had to bring her own toilet paper, and she
had to bring her own chemo medicine, and her own cup to go to the
bathroom in. The women say they are too afraid to use the
bathrooms, for fear of infection. This is all a far cry from the system Hugo
Chavez promised in 1999, when he became president and enshrined free health care into the country’s
constitution. He made progress when times were good, but, today, in this crisis, everything
depends on what a patient can afford. And this health crisis is affecting the people
Chavez championed, the country’s most vulnerable. For children, rising malnutrition and the
lack of vaccines and treatment mean a rise in preventable diseases like dengue fever,
malaria and scabies. Thirteen-year-old Jenire loves Minnie Mouse,
rabbits and the color pink, but, right now, she can barely speak. A few months ago, she
developed a lump in her eye. Her mom took her to a hospital in Maracaibo, but because
there were no specialists on call, she was told to wait and see. SANDRA GALINDEZ, Mother (through translator):
And all they said was, let’s wait. Let’s wait. But while waiting, it kept growing in her
eye, until they realized it wasn’t what they thought, and instead was an aggressive tumor,
something like cancer. MARCIA BIGGS: While they are grateful that
she is finally getting treated here in Caracas, it’s too late. She will lose her eye. How do you feel knowing that this could have
been prevented? SANDRA GALINDEZ (through translator): Well,
this is quite a difficult situation for me. I took her to see doctors and more doctors,
and nothing happened. It’s hard to see her like this, to see her
suffer and cry, in so much pain. That’s truly not easy. It’s an experience that I really
hope no one else has to live through. MARCIA BIGGS: Back in Maracaibo, at the Rodriguez
home, the family is desperate for help. Jose has trouble swallowing food and is wasting
away. PAULA CONCHILA (through translator): We need
help. We need an oxygen tank. I need a mattress for him to avoid bedsores. And I need a nutrition
supplement. This is the most urgent. MARCIA BIGGS: We asked Dr. Colmenares where
they could find an oxygen tank in Maracaibo. She wrote back that she didn’t know. A week
later, we learned that Mr. Rodriguez died. Dr. Colmenares says he’s just one of thousands
who are too sick, too poor, or too afraid to come to the hospital for treatment, and
so he won’t be counted in official statistics. She blames the regime of President Nicolas
Maduro for what has become of Venezuela’s health care. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
Our hospitals have become extermination camps. The people that go to them know they are going
to die there. MARCIA BIGGS: What you’re describing to me
sounds like things I have only seen in war zones. DR. DORA COLMENARES (through translator):
And this is war. We are at war. But this is something unseen. You don’t see grenades,
but they are killing us. They are killing our future. They are killing our children. MARCIA BIGGS: She says she stays to fight
for change and to keep caring for this vulnerable population. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in
Maracaibo, Venezuela. JUDY WOODRUFF: Such a disturbing story, and
so important to tell.

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