The Struggle to Feed the Hospital Universitario's Patients

It kills doctors and nurses to know their patients are being served food that isn't nutritious enough —or even just plain enough. We talk with doctors, patients and catering staff at the Universtario: a hospital in a hunger crisis.


“You won’t have to worry about diabetes, that’s for sure” says Marta Díaz, a cook in a kitchen on the fourth floor of the Hospital Clínico Universitario in Caracas, while I drink a glass of melon juice which, in highly un-Venezuelan manner, has no extra sugar.

Díaz cannot remember the last time they added sugar to the fruit juices they were giving patients, according to their specific diets. They haven’t seen any corn flour, rice, fresh or dry milk for months in the hospital’s kitchens.

“When we bring the patients some chicken or meat they get so happy — they very rarely eat that here” says Marta, a short and dark-skinned woman who was just starting to work as a cook. She put on her white apron and hat, the same uniform all of her colleagues were wearing.

The Universitario is a top level hospital within the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Housed in a classic Villanueva building, it had long been famous for its high modernist architecture. Today, its gardens, basements and accessibility ramps are in a sad state of disrepair. It used to be a model to follow for all other hospitals in the country; years ago these eleven floors were the home of the best care and the best medical students in Venezuela.

If food shortages are common all over the country, can you imagine how they play out in hospitals? It’s bad enough that on the first of June doctors, nurses, construction workers and even patients gathered at the hospital’s entrance to protest.

One of their reasons for the protest the shortage of food and its poor quality.

Patients Who Eat Only What the Hospital Serve

“One day our breakfast was just one mango. Nothing else. That was breakfast for everyone in the hospital. Before that we spent two weeks eating scrambled eggs every day for breakfast, and sometimes for lunch. By the way, the servings are tiny, for a baby” says Julio Cuenta who is 66 but he’s so thin that he looks even older.

He shares his room with another patient and he tells me, with sadness and resignation, that none of his relatives ever visit him and that’s he’s been waiting for two months to get a hernia operation. Since he has no relatives to take care of him he has to rely on what the hospital can feed him.

Julio doesn’t like oatmeal and that was just what he got for breakfast a couple of weeks ago, though it had no sugar, no salt. He tells me that it was so tasteless he won’t eat it.

“When they bring me food that I can’t eat I just have to go hungry. I’m all alone here. Even when I can eat it often it’s too little and I’m still hungry when I finish,” says Cuenta with a mixed expression of sadness, because he hadn’t talked to anyone new in months, and some happiness precisely for the same reason. While we talk his gaze gets lost looking out at El Ávlila. It’s especially bright and green on this sunny afternoon, though a few clouds cover the top.

The hospital’s main kitchen is on the second floor. There are one or two cooking areas on each floor, where four women work in each. When I walk into one of them I see that many of the fridges, ovens, and other appliances are covered with a sheet of paper that says “broken.” Even though the staff tries their best to keep the kitchen in good condition they tell me that on some days there’s no water; pots and pans pile up dirty on the sinks, waiting to be washed.

Many of the carts used to carry food are broken. The few of them that work are divided among the serving staff, who struggle to find ways to bring them up and down floors since most elevators are out of service. They even tell me that on occasion they’ve had to use the same elevators used by garbage collection and hazardous waste.

Not what the Doctor Ordered

“Every illness and treatment should give rise to its own specific diet. Patients with heart disease must restrict their sodium intake. Diabetic patients have to restrict carbohydrates and sugar, while kidney patients must have a diet that is low in liquids and salt, but here every patient gets the same food” says Gherzon Casanova, president of the interns and residents’ society. He’s a young guy, no older than 30, and he speaks with great concern about the hospital’s tough situation.

Journalists aren’t allowed in the hospital so Casanova gave me the interview in a vacant room on the second floor. Normally, there should be two patients here but because of the lack of supplies doctors tell people that they should only come if they have enough medical supplies for their treatment. While he talks to me he gets up nervously every so often to  make sure no one from security sees us. If they catch us I’d get kicked out of the hospital and he would be in serious trouble for letting me in.

Jorge is 14 years old and has had kidney disease and has been hospitalized for more than three months. His mother, Maritza describes the quality of the food and especially its nutritional qualities as “awful”. They come from Barcelona, Anzoátegui and decided to come to Caracas because the crisis is even more dire in other cities and states in Venezuela.

“For three days in a row my son got ground meat for lunch and he can’t eat that. I’m not from Caracas, I don’t know anyone here and I don’t have the money to go out and buy food on the street,” says Maritza (Carmona). In the hospital’s cafeterias a lunch costs over 2,000 bolivars while a monthly minimum wage is 15,051 bolivars.

Back at the empty room with Dr. Casanova he tells me, quietly and quickly, how him and his colleagues have seen an increase in anemic patients in the ER. “They’re coming here in this condition because they can’t get enough protein: eggs, meat, fish or chicken. The patients tell us they eat these foods once every two or three weeks and naturally they have a deficit of basic nutrients.” Anemia is caused by low iron intake, which can be found in meats, beans, lentils and leafy vegetables.

Just as he says this we fall into deep silence. He’s thinking about how bad things are in his daily life at the hospital while I reflect on the huge numbers of people who live this reality in hospitals across the country.

Interestingly enough, a few days after the last protest the hospital received better food, larger portions for patients and even deserts. Casanova also tells me that they had the supplies they had demanded in the protest: antibiotics, syringes, various solutions and the equipment for serology studies.

“But that just lasted for three days. I guess we’ll have to protest once every week to get our supplies and food,” he says nervously laughing.