BOGOTA, Colombia – Venezuelans socialists' dream of free health treatment for all has turned into a nightmare. Public hospitals' overstretched medical professionals are afraid to talk about it out of fear that members of the socialist party will assume they have sided with the opposition.
A brave nurse recently said there is barely any running water at the public hospital where she works. She said that even when there is power they can barely provide safe food to malnourished patients. It was not a surprise to her that there was a total collapse at the hospital during a recent power outage.
Generators didn't work at first. They were rushing newborn babies to a different floor. And when the generators worked, the nurse said thieves stormed into the hospital. One doctor was taking a patient with a heart attack down the stairs when police officers held them at gunpoint.
"The police arrived pointing guns at them, thinking they were the thieves," said the nurse, who asked Local 10 News to protect her identity over fear of reprisal.
With a health care system already in a state of collapse, public hospital workers say they fear that future power blackouts could be even more catastrophic. Health workers say they have gotten used to the unhygienic environment. There is contaminated water in sinks, mold growing in walls, scattered medical waste, unreliable surgical equipment and a scarcity of medical supplies.
There is a chronic shortage of antibiotics, catheters, latex gloves, syringes and cleaning products. Cancer patients with compromised immune systems are often at risk of contracting infectious diseases.
Some public hospitals are forced to turn patients away. Many of the hospitals don't have working generators or an emergency supply of water to face the unreliable public services. Health care workers say sometimes all they can give a patient is a bed to die.
In their most recent report, the Center of Justice and Peace, or CEPAZ, a nongovernmental organization, found that the risk of dying at a public hospital is high because more than half of the surgical rooms are closed and emergency rooms are unreliable.
Patients have turned to crowdsourcing with GoFundMe with the help of Venezuelans living abroad to raise funds to have access to health care in Colombia or to be able to afford costly medications in the black market.
Many specialists and health care workers have joined the Venezuelan exodus of about 3.5 million Venezuelans. Experts in Venezuela worry that refugees are taking diseases with them to neighboring countries. Earlier this year, Venezuelan Dr. Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, of the IDB Biomedical Research Institute in Barquisimeto, referred to the rise of vaccine-preventable diseases in Venezuela as a time bomb. The lack of potable water concerned him.
"Outbreaks by gastrointestinal pathogens are highly complex when it comes to implementing epidemiological detection and control measures," Paniz-Mondolfi wrote on Twitter.
There are also concerns about maternal and infant mortality rates and cases of malaria, tuberculosis, dengue, measles and diphtheria. Venezuelan doctors are growing frustrated with the Venezuelan Health Ministry. Earlier this month, Dr. Julio Castro, of the Doctors for Health nongovernmental organization, was annoyed when public officials used social media to raise awareness of lupus.
"It would be desirable to have treatment for patients with lupus," Castro wrote in Spanish on Twitter. "Commemorating the day of a disease without treatment is at the very least a mockery for patients."
After much insistence from the international community, embattled President Nicolás Maduro's administration allowed the Red Cross to respond to the humanitarian emergency and accepted 71 tons of medical supplies from China. Supporters of Juan Guaidó have also sent aid to Colombia.
The aid from the Red Cross may not be enough. A new study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal, reported there is a "re-emergence of vector-borne diseases that has the possibility of severely undermining regional disease elimination efforts." The researchers ask authorities to take urgent action against the "worsening epidemics."
A Local 10 News freelancer in Venezuela contributed to this story. Weddle reported from Bogota and Torres reported from Miami.