To Be Born in Venezuela

7

You can tell Juan is a national policeman. He’s wearing his uniform pants, the red stripe running down from his belt to his ankles gives him away. He tries to pass wearing a simple white T-shirt and a Leones del Caracas baseball cap as he sits down on the stairs that go up to the 10th floor of Caracas’s University Hospital. He’s talking with his mom on his cell phone, “yeah, I need a change of clothes, with two panties, and some food. I’ll figure out how to get the medicines they prescribed him.” He says this with no apparent intention.


“They didn’t treat us at either place because their operating rooms aren’t working. Here they said yes, but we have to wait. It’s been ten hours. She’s giving birth early.”

I approach him with that solidarity of shared concerns. We get to talking. Juan’s wife is eight and a half months pregnant and that morning she woke up with strong pains in her tummy. After going to the Clínica Popular de El Valle — the two live in the El Setenta barrio — they got bumped to Pérez Carreño hospital, and from there to the University hospital.

“They didn’t treat us at either place because their operating rooms aren’t working. Here they said yes, but we have to wait. It’s been ten hours. She’s giving birth early.”

Mariana is 21 years old and this is her second pregnancy, according to Juan. The first one turned into one of the many tragedies that fringe our country. It was a boy and he was born at the Maternidad Concepción Palacios, the biggest maternity hospital in Venezuela. He had to spend two days in an incubator as a precaution because it was a high-risk birth. Mom’s blood pressure had fallen. His name was Joaquín. Early on, he picked up an infection from the newborn care unit. He died fifteen days later having breathing difficulties.

“It was the doctor who confirmed the diagnosis. I wanted to kill him. That day, a nurse told me ten other babies had the same bug. They all died.”


Juan’s one real need is survival, his own and his children’s.

It’s a painful story to hear. But what’s shocking is the way he tells it: with a non-challance  suffused with resignation. His only consolation is knowing he will not go back to the Concepción Palacios, and that now he has a second chance to start a family. Even with all the stress involved when you can’t afford a private clinic. “My salary is barely Bs.30,000. The insurance policy I have doesn’t cover maternity. At least not the surgical part. I want this kid to have a good birth so I can change jobs. Being a cop is a death sentence in this city.

Juan’s one real need is survival, his own and his children’s. But survival can’t be taken for granted. More than 2,300 pregnant women have malaria. Newborn death rates are climbing terrifyingly fast

We also face problems due to medicine shortages and on-the-brink health care equipment. The Venezuelan Observatory of Health, together with the UCV’s Medical School and nine other NGOs that look over the health system, struggle to put together a single story of the long-term costs for the generation of children born under the revolution.

Maybe numbers and expert statements give us some context of what it’s really like in a Venezuelan hospital. But it’s better to listen to the stories of those who live there day to day to have a clearer outlook. Those who queue up and suck up the frustration of waiting to be seen by a doctor, or to get their hands on what pills are available.

Take Josefina. She’s just 18 and on her second pregnancy and she’s been waiting for twelve hours for a C-Section at Vargas Hospital. She’s a little bit more comfortable than Juan — sitting in a little room with six chairs just outside the delivery room — waiting for her sister to get there.

“I went to four hospitals today,” she tells me. “I’ve been running around like this since 9 in the morning. I’m in a lot of pain. The doctor took my blood pressure and examined my dilation. It seems I’m ready to give birth. But I’m really scared because it’s only my seventh month,” she says as she wipes her nose with the back of her right hand. Her first kid is at home with his grandma. She had him when she was 15. “My family helped me to finish high school. I want to become an accountant.”

Maybe so she can tally up the hours she’ll have to spend in line to buy supplies for her baby.

At times you get this uncanny feeling that you live in a parallel world. Trying to put some distance between yourself and a reality that runs parallel to your day-to-day life. That’s ok until you have to live through it yourself. My wife is pregnant. She’s five months in.

Thank you for your congratulations!


A C-Section is now running between Bs.700,000 and Bs.1 million. For a mere mortal earning the minimum wage, that’s impossible to pay for.

She has no insurance, and the one I have doesn’t include maternity benefits. My situation is as irregular as Juan’s. The day I met him I wasn’t at the Universitario as a reporter, I was waiting for my wife to see a doctor. That morning she slipped in the shower and her tummy hurt, bad.

We had to wait five hours for an ultrasound to confirm that Rafael (my son) is ok.

Since we found out we’d become parents we’ve been shuffling through our options for the child’s birth: from asking family members abroad for a loan so we can go to a private clinic to peddling influence in public hospitals to get better treatment.  A C-Section is now running between Bs.700,000 and Bs.1 million. For a mere mortal earning the minimum wage, that’s impossible to pay for. If you’re lucky enough to earn a bit more, it’s still hard. At public hospitals you may not pay for medical care, but you have to supply all the shortage-hit goods: sanitary pads, surgical gowns, soap, the epidural, diapers. Just to name a few.

That’s when you come face to face with the revolutionary bureaucratic behemoth of health and childbirth.

When I was born, in 1986, my mom went to the Maternidad Concepción Palacios and came out two days later with her kid in her arms. In between, she had a meltdown that nearly killed her when she found out her son had been misplaced, and may be entirely lost. In fact, I’d just been put in the girls’ pavilion by accident. She never had to take a cent out of her pocket for anaesthetics or a tray for lunch. You don’t have to shower praise on the old regime for its “dedication” to healthcare, but hey, here I am writing this,  vivito y coleando. How many children of the revolution won’t be able to say the same?


As a father to be, concern over how to safeguard the lives of my wife and kid has become all consuming.

At the Maternidad del Sur in Valencia, doctors record eleven dead babies each week, for reasons that range from hospital bugs to shortages of medicines needed in high-risk births. At Barcelona Hospital, in february, a 12 hour blackout forced nurses to manually pump air into the lungs of some ten newborns in incubators. Four of them died. At Mérida’s Hospital, women in labor routinely have to be transferred to private clinics because the hospital is unable to handle any but the most straightforward, complication-free births. The next of kin have to cough up the cash somehow to keep mother and child alive.

As a father to be, concern over how to safeguard the lives of my wife and kid has become all consuming. You struggle to figure out where the money and the supplies will come from. Like Juan, all I want is the chance to start a family without the shadow of death stalking the very moment when life seeks out its first breath.

That’s what it means to be born in the Venezuela in 2016.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. This is … man, this is absolutely destroying. I’d like to say congratulations but at this point I have to say I wish you all the luck in the universe and dont envy the mental agony you have to be living while documenting something that is hitting so close…

    Lets hope your son gets to see a better Venezuela.

  2. Good thing Venezuela has the biggest oil reserves ( ????? ) so the government says and bloats about it ….. but that much of a fortune only goes to the “enchufados” the mere mortals aka el pueblo only has the right to regal themselves with such a fact theoretically……… but doesn’t bear any real benefit from that supposed huge revenue

  3. I’m confused on the medical insurance part, I thought Venny had socialized medicine, or are you talking about insurance for private clinics?

    • Sure sure, there are public hospitals. The Universitario, where Jefferson met Juan, is public. The care there is “free” except there are no drugs or supplies so you still have to spend a bunch of money to be treated there.

      Most unions negotiate hard to include a private health insurance policy in their collective bargaining agreements, because the private clinics they give you access are usually not as horrible as in the public system. This year, though, the distinction between the two has really frayed: the privates can’t get supplies any more than the publics can.

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