The Bleak and Scary World Inside a Venezuelan Women’s Hospital

Any mother-to-be in Venezuela would be lucky to give birth in Ana Teresa de Jesus Ponce women’s hospital in Macuto, just north of Caracas.

Only a few of its incubators are out of commission and some of the window-unit air conditioners work. But what really sets it apart is the on-site power generator, which kicks in when the fitful government grid fails. Blackouts are among the deadly plagues in the country’s medical facilities, victims of the economic collapse under the Nicolas Maduro regime.

Like other hospitals that are still functioning, Ana Teresa de Jesus is jam-packed with patients. Its 60 beds, some lined up in grimy hallways, were filled when Yoicy Sifontes, 19, arrived by bus, in labor. She was turned away. Two hours later, she had her baby on the concrete steps in front of her house, her mother pressing on her belly to ease the boy’s entry into the world. They hailed a cab and rushed back to the hospital, his umbilical cord still attached.

“I was sobbing,” Sifontes said. But little Yoises lived, healthy except for a bad case of jaundice. She rested on a bed covered with flowered sheets she brought from home, a blanket folded into a makeshift pillow. Her mother visited every day, carting plastic bottles of water; the taps in the hospital often run dry. Its laboratory hasn’t been operational since it ran out of the chemicals needed to conduct tests, so her husband, who works at a local port, ran Yoises’s blood samples to an independent laboratory nearby.

While Sifontes was at the hospital, at least, she ate two meals a day, which is more than many people in Venezuela can afford. “It’s either lentils and beans, or beans and lentils,” said Mirvi Maza, 36, who was being treated for mastitis, which causes painful swelling after breastfeeding.

The elevator in the two-story building has been broken since September; women in labor and just out of the delivery room slowly made their way up and down a dim stairwell. A stench of placenta, blood, urine and feces wafted in from an open garbage dump out back.

The physician roster, which just a few years ago totaled 28, is down to nine. The country has been bleeding doctors for some time, with the Venezuelan Medical Federation estimating that more than 26,000 — about half the country’s total — have left since 2004.

“Wages are miserable,” said Leon Natera, the head of the federation. The average monthly salary for a physician at a public hospital is 35,000 bolivars, about $11. “They’re holding on by the skin of their teeth.”

Hospitals make do without enough soap, X-ray machines, ultrasound devices, sheets, surgical gloves, defibrillators, morphine and other drugs. Patients with infections rarely get the full dose of antibiotics. “People aren’t recovering properly,” said Frank Pena, a obstetrician who has worked at Ana Teresa de Jesus for two decades.

Last week, Maduro announced that Russia had donated 7.5 tons of medical supplies, days before his government brutally crushed an effort orchestrated by opposition leader Juan Guaido to bring humanitarian aid from the U.S. into the country.

Venezuela’s healthcare system, a shining example in Latin America back when the government had the money for ambitious programs, has been crumbling for many years. The National Assembly, which Guaido now leads, declared the situation a crisis in 2016. Maduro appeared on television to reject that notion. “I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one,” he said.

That next year, the Venezuelan Health Ministry issued a statistical report that cited a 65 percent increase in maternal mortality, a 30 percent increase in infant mortality and outbreaks of diseases that had long been in check, including diphtheria and malaria. Maduro sacked the health minister after the report came out. The ministry hasn’t published one since.

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