Venezuela health care crisis: Shooting is just the first pain

Venezuela's health care crisis
Venezuela's health care crisis

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Story highlights

  • Supplies have run out in some of Venezuela's main hospitals
  • Patients hold on to cash to buy what they need
  • It's another sign of the impact of the country's economic crisis

Valencia, Venezuela (CNN)When Jose Luis Vasquez was brought to the emergency room last Monday with a gunshot wound to the chest, the worst of his nightmare should have been over. He had survived an armed robbery without losing any major organs and needed only what doctors described as minor surgery.

Vasquez is being treated in one of Venezuela's largest public hospitals, in Valencia, an industrial city about 150 kilometers (95 miles) from the capital, Caracas. Days later, he is still laid up in a humid room at the public hospital. A makeshift surgical drain, made from an empty gallon bottle, draws fluid from his lungs. All the supplies, from gauze to syringes, had to be purchased out of his pocket.
    "I had to buy this needle," Vasquez says, pointing at the yellow casing secured to his right arm with transparent tape. "This cost me 1,000 Bolivares. The hydrogen peroxide was another 2,000 Bolivares -- there was nothing in this hospital."
    Those two amounts add up to about 30% of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. And Vasquez has also lost his major source of income: the bicycle he used to make deliveries was stolen when he was shot.
    His fears of being robbed continue inside the hospital, so he hides the money he needs for medicine under his blanket inside his underwear.
    Falling oil prices led to deficits in Venezuela, which the government tackled by printing money. But that has now led to ballooning inflation, and even basics have become unaffordable for many.
    Luis Hidalgo, who's been in a wheelchair with a leg in a cast after a car accident, says he's been awaiting further treatment on his leg for 40 days. He, too, had to buy his medical supplies, and he says they were stolen when he was heavily sedated.
    "A few weeks ago I went into the operating room and, when I came out, not only had I not had the surgery but everything was gone."
    Some in the hospital believe the medicines are being swiped from the facility to be sold on the black market, as government rationing of medications has made even basics, like pain relievers, hard to come by.
    Yomaira Meza's daughter Winifer was scheduled to have a tumor removed from her neck this week, but surgery was canceled because of the lack of supplies.
    When asked what they were going to do, all she answered was "keep waiting."
    According to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, the country is lacking roughly 80% of the basic medical supplies needed to treat its population.
    Doctors attending to these patients are also without resources. A group of residents treating Vasquez and Meza said they don't even have paper to write prescriptions on and, up until recently, were working without any light in their lounge.
    "We used to have operating rooms working 24 hours a day," said Mariangel Fonseca, a surgical resident. "This was an elite hospital."
    This week, the opposition-controlled National Assembly officially declared Venezuela is suffering a national humanitarian health crisis.
    During the three-hour debate, legislators said President Nicolas Maduro must present a plan to guarantee access to essential medical supplies and open the country's borders to international aid.
    Maduro's government denies there is a crisis and says his administration has opened more than 2,000 urgent care facilities throughout the country. He also accused the opposition of plotting to privatize the country's national health care system.