These times, in Venezuela, are brutal ones: There are anti-government protests every day in cities across the country. At least 67 people, most of them under the age of 30, have been killed in clashes with the National Guard and colectivos, pro-government militia-like groups, since April 1, according to the Attorney General’s office, and more than 1,000 others have been injured. At least 3,000 protesters have been arrested, and 360 have been taken before military tribunals, charged with “treason to the homeland,” for which they face a maximum sentence of 30 years.
For the last two years Norma Camero Reno has been shipping a steady supply of desperately needed medicines from the United States to Venezuela. Reno and other members of her nonprofit, Move Foundation, pack painkillers, cold medicines and other supplies to be distributed to hospitals, health clinics and churches throughout the beleaguered nation.
Two weeks ago, however, that all changed.
Reno, a Venezuelan-born, Tampa-based lawyer and founder of the foundation, said that for years her organization faced very little pushback from the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro when sending packages of food and medicine to the country. But when she arrived in the small, Venezuelan coastal city of Barcelona two weeks ago, Reno discovered that none of the recent medicine shipments had made it to her contacts in the country.
While the group has in the past had to deal with Venezuelan officials confiscating food shipments, this was the first time that medicine has been stopped from being delivered.
“They are stopping everything from going in,” Reno told Fox News. “They are taking everything for themselves.”
Venezuelans have struggled in recent years to get their hands on all types of medical supplies – from over-the-counter painkillers to infection-fighting antibiotics – as the country grapples with widespread shortages and soaring inflation rates brought on by economic mismanagement from the socialist government in Caracas. The lack of equipment like respirators has become so dire that babies are dying in maternity wards from commonplace infirmities that are now considered life-threatening.
Social media has erupted with pleas from many Venezuelans for groups to send prescription medicines to fight illnesses from diabetes to cancer.
CARACAS, Venezuela — Maikol Mendoza shivered under his flannel blanket, pulling it tightly around him, despite the stuffy, humid conditions in the corridors of Dr. José Manuel de los Ríos Children’s Hospital in Caracas.
A nurse pushed his wheelchair from an emergency dialysis session back to the ICU, wheeling him past bare, peeling blue walls and a bank of broken elevators. When Maikol’s aunt squeezed his shoulder along the way, he reached up, hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her closer.
“I thought I was going to die,” he whispered in her ear, their faces wet with his tears.
Just a week earlier, on Holy Friday, he had been certain of precisely the opposite: In the midst of Venezuela’s dire health crisis, Maikol had been given a new, healthy kidney.
For the first time in two years, the soft-spoken, husky teenager had started making plans. He would finally have the energy to go back to catechism classes, join his neighbor’s foosball games, and plan his 17th birthday celebration.
But then everything went wrong.
Maikol’s relatives could not hunt down all the medicines he needed amid the country's rapidly growing medical shortage, including post-op anti-inflammatory drugs. The hospital ran out of protein-rich food. There were no ambulances available to transfer Maikol to a different facility to get a sonogram done that would evaluate for any complications. When one was finally assigned to him, an anti-government demonstration made it impossible to get there.
Then, Maikol became infected with a highly resistant bacteria borne out of the hospital’s poorly maintained water pipes.
Before he could make sense of what was happening, Maikol, the last transplant patient at the hospital in this dying nation, had to be rushed back to the operating room to remove his new kidney.
“We’re not dogs,” Taina Rodríguez, Maikol’s mother, said angrily. Doctors had told her to prepare for the worst after the transplanted organ began to fail. Rodriguez recently quit her job packaging Doritos to sit by Maikol’s bed in a vigil while the rest of his family has taken turns to visit from Barquisimeto, their hometown, 230 miles west of Caracas.
This left Maikol back at square one, or worse. His life had been snatched from him again, and now his family was left full of uncertainty once more: Would he survive the second surgery? Would they ever find another donor?
Stories like Maikol's are everywhere in Venezuela, where the health care system is on the brink of total collapse and patients who thought they were in the clear are back to fighting a harsh reality. Hospitals have left patients’ families to fend for themselves, scurrying to purchase everything from syringes to anesthesia, often at exuberant black market rates, and forcing doctors to perform surgery with antiquated equipment in operating rooms cleaned with dirty water.
The Health Ministry’s first set of data since July 2015, published earlier this month, should come as no surprise: infant and maternal mortality rose 30% and 65% last year, respectively. The statistics show the country has come a long way from the 1950s to 80s, when Venezuela's vast oil reserves made it one of the wealthiest countries in the region.
The Dr. Jose Manuel de los Rios Children’s Hospital, the gem of Venezuela’s public pediatric care, is a prime example of the health care system’s widespread failure. A report conducted last year by the Universidad Simón Bolívar warned that the hospital’s water tanks had an infestation of rodents and that both the ER and ICU were contaminated by sewage water. It also revealed that in 2015, the hospital received the equivalent of just $39,560 from the federal government for everything from medicine to equipment repair, down from $2.7 million in 2011 (the authors used the parallel, or black market, dollar rate, which has skyrocketed because of currency controls and inflation).
Doctors at the hospital had heard that immunosuppressants, the drugs needed to prevent patients like Maikol from rejecting transplanted organs, were no longer available in the country, but the Health Ministry had yet to make an official announcement.
“There was no way to know if we could really accept the transplant,” admitted Belen Arteaga, the head of the nephrology department at the children’s hospital. “There’s real misinformation.”
On Friday, over one month after Maikol underwent the first surgery, the government office in charge of transplants, Fundavene, sent a letter to Arteaga announcing that it was suspending kidney transplants from deceased people until further notice.
If the health system is on the brink of collapse it's because Venezuela is systematically and rapidly falling apart. Inflation is expected to hit 2,000% by next year; shortages of everything from milk to chicken have led to people losing an average of 19 pounds; and homicides have soared in the already-violent country. President Nicolás Maduro, the less-than-charismatic and increasingly autocratic successor of Hugo Chavez, has announced that he is pulling the country out of the Organization of American States and set in motion a rewrite of the constitution. Daily protests have convulsed the country for over two months, during which more than 50 demonstrators have been killed.
In a move that seems extraordinary for a country not at war, opposition leaders have asked Maduro to allow a channel of humanitarian aid from abroad, a request echoed by a bipartisan group of US senators. Maduro, instead, has handed control over the distribution of medicine to the country’s armed forces.
Amid this chaos, it is children like Maikol who are left with no idea what their future will look like. His second chance at life dashed by the failed transplant, he doesn’t know if he’ll get another one.
In any case, doctors told him that he will have to wait at least a year to try again. By then, Maikol will be an adult. “He told the doctors he never wants to come back to this hospital,” his mother said.