First aid

Doctors who work in peril: ‘It is not easy to watch your own people die daily’

Two young women at the frontlines describe the health crisis in Venezuela: drug shortages, inflated prices, maternal mortality and more

It used to be that when a person was ill in rural Venezuela, their most pressing concern was how to reach an urban center for adequate treatment. In recent years, though, transport has become the least of their problems; now the real drama begins when they arrive at the hospital.

“Imagine you’re the mother of a small child who just got sick,” said Astrid Cantor, a medical doctor and columnist for the Caracas Chronicles, at the ninth annual Women in the World Summit in New York on Saturday morning. “Your child might have pneumonia, your child might have diarrhea. You will arrive [at] the hospital and the doctor will say, ‘Well yeah, I have to admit your child, he’s really sick. But first I need you to get all of this.’ And then he will hand out a list of the things you need to go and buy.” That means syringes, rubbing alcohol—even cotton, because there is nothing at the hospital. “And let’s just say you went through all of the pharmacies. You walked to fifteen, twenty drug stores just to find the antibiotics you need.” When you finally do, the price will be unaffordable.

People are turning to social media, Cantor said, to barter with strangers, offering food for medicine: “I will give that medicine to you, and you will give me some rice.”

“In hospitals right now, the only thing the patient gets is the knowledge of the doctor,” added Federica Dávila, a medical student who joined Cantor onstage along with Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News Nightline.

Dávila was already in medical school when the protests first started in Venezuela in 2014. Following the death of Hugo Chávez and the instatement of Nicolás Maduro as president, anti-government demonstrators—students, mostly—took to the streets to agitate for regime change. Dávila was stirred by what she was saw happening around her: food shortages, people dying from non-fatal injuries and preventable diseases. So she co-founded Primeros Auxilios UCV (“Green Cross”) to give medical assistance to people injured in the conflict. “At that time we were like forty people helping in the streets,” she explained in New York.

Opposition activists scatter as National Guard riot control vehicles charge during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on May 10, 2017. (Juan Barreto, Getty Images)

After the 2014 riots, there was a lull in the violence—but things flared up after a collapse in oil prices made life in Venezuela almost untenable. (Children, for example, had begun skipping school or fainting due to hunger.) In 2017, Dávila reactivated the Green Cross, gathering three other people to scour pharmacies and fill up backpacks with anything they could find. “A month later we were 250 people,” she said, “medical students and doctors who joined our project and went to streets, went into the riots—inside of it, on the first row—to help the injured.”

The earlier round of riots meant minor injuries from rubber bullets and people suffering from the effects of tear gas, but now Dávila saw much worse: ”people our own age, or even younger—kids—dead in front of our eyes.” She added, “You were watching a human being with dreams, with a future, with a family” lose everything for expressing what they wanted to say: “I will not tolerate what is happening here.”

What is happening includes, among other things, a shocking rise in maternal mortality rates—“now highest in Latin America, the highest they have ever been in my country,” explained Cantor. According to the Health Ministry in 2017, Venezuela has seen a 65 percent increase in deaths during childbirth. (The health minister, Antonieta Caporale, was fired after releasing this information.) “We are the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, and yet our people are dying of completely preventable causes.”

Federica Dávila and Dr. Astrid Cantor at The 2018 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

Some mothers, desperate to protect their children, have responded to the situation by crossing the border to Colombia seeking free vaccinations for diphtheria and measles. In February this year, 91,000 people were estimated to have crossed in a single day. Other women have been forced to trade food for contraceptives, since the government has mostly stopped distributing them for free, and still others must undergo childbirth without an epidural, because no anesthetic is available.

“These are the basic rights of women,” Cantor said, confessing that she has filled her suitcase with sanitary products to take back to Venezuela for other women.

Dávila added. “In Venezuela we don’t have the right to live, we don’t have the right to healthcare, and we don’t have the right to eat food. That is how harsh the situation is.” So harsh, in fact, that doctors on the front lines of the crisis are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It is not easy to watch your own people die daily,” Dávila said. “Knowing their illness, knowing they cannot eat, and not being able to give them medicine … that is heartbreaking.”

Additional reporting by Marion Bradford.

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