Photos: Luis José Boada
When I started this trip, I had no idea that I’d meet a woman with the most unique of stories. It’s almost a three-hour trip, from Maturín to Tucupita, and I’m focused on arriving at the Luis Razetti Hospital Complex before 9:00 am. I take a colleague with me to take photos of a malnourished hospitalized child. A journalist from the area, José, waits to help us inside without hassle.
We arrive at pediatrics and go up to the second floor. We find the kid, and I let my partner do his job. While I wait, I walk the corridors with José, with a bit of caution; if the soldiers guarding the place find us with cameras, it’ll be bad. Their “duty” is to prevent reporters from showing the devastating truth about what’s really going on in the public health system, and if you get caught, you’ll wish you never turned to journalism.
There’s only one woman with a slow and clumsy walk in the corridor, and she clearly has mental issues. I ask José who she is and he asks me if I’ve seen the movie The Legend of 1900. I haven’t, so he briefly walks me through the story: a boy who’s born on a cruise ship, in 1900. He grows up on the ship and becomes a great pianist, but he never gets off the ship. He dies when the boat is sunk in a shipyard after World War II.
Pointing to the woman, José says:
“She’s like that pianist. Gladys was born in the hospital and has been living here since she was born, 54 years ago.”
I take the pictures very carefully, I don’t want to scare her. She seems comfortable with me. I keep smiling, as if we already know each other. We go through the hall and into several rooms. In some, patients lay on their beds, greeting her with affection. She takes me around, as you’d show your home to a visitor.
We enter a lonely room, inside there’s a cradle and her expression changes, her smile dies. She walks towards the window and stares out for a few minutes. I just take more photos.
Shes moves away and lays a hand on the metal cradle, looking at the camera.
“How old are you?” I ask,
“I’m 19,” she says aloud.
Gladys’s mental problem hampers her from communicating properly. We continue touring around every corner of the second floor, and into a very small room with a stretcher covered with a red blanket, two bags with some rags and plastic pots where she keeps some food. I ask if this is her room, and she nods. I ask how she sleeps, but she won’t tell me, and instead walks away.
There I stand, trying to imagine how someone can look at the same walls for over half a century. I try to find her again, and I bump into my photographer friend, who’s done with his work. I say goodbye to Gladys. Before leaving, I ask a nurse if she has always slept there, and the answer is “No, her original room was on the second floor of the internal medicine area, but after a fire in the ER, she was moved to pediatrics.”
On the way back, I can do nothing but talk about her, desperate to know more of a story that can’t be summarized in a few pictures. My interest turns into an obsession, I speak to everyone about Gladys and the more I talk about her, the more curious I get. Two weeks later, I return to Tucupita in search of answers.
It’s 8:00 o’clock in the morning; there are issues with public transport and two old ladies ask me to give them a ride. Although in a hurry, I decide to take them and, on the way, I ask if they knew anything about Gladys.
Turns out, everyone in Tucupita knows her.
“I think she got her tubes ligated because of an abortion,” one of the ladies says.
“How could she have an abortion?” I ask
“I don’t even know if it’s true, you’ll have to ask at the hospital.”
An elderly woman greets José and me later, at her small, poor home. She’s 82-year old Cleotilde Mejías, worker in the hospital for 30 years. She met Gladys when Gladys was a little girl. Nurses took turns taking care of her and they all loved her very much. Cleotilde took the girl’s bed into the nursing restroom when they were on call.
“She was my companion of many nights, very affectionate, despite her disabilities. She wasn’t violent. Every day, she visited the patients and knew the illness of each. She pretended to be a doctor!”
I ask about the alleged abortion and Cleotilde says that Gladys got pregnant when she was very young.
“Who was the father?”
Cleotilde can’t remember many things. She believes that Gladys’s kid died, but she can’t really tell, since she was at leave when Gladys gave birth. She knew the doctors decided to ligate her because someone could abuse her again.
At the hospital, I go straight to pediatrics. I don’t find her in the hallways and her room is empty. It takes us a lot of asking around and avoiding the soldiers’s attention to, at the end of a long corridor, see her.
I ask her which room is hers and she points it out with her hand. There’s a large bed with a very worn mattress inside. At the door, a sign reads “Please, clean Gladys’s room every day (all shifts),” signed by “Trump.”
I try to take as many pictures as possible, still looking for one of her lying down. I try again to convince her and, again, she refuses. Defeated, I say goodbye and, arriving to the staircase, I realize that I left the camera bag in the room.
Through more questioning (mainly to nurses, active and retired,) I later learn that, newly born, Gladys was abandoned in the woods. She was found by a peasant, covered with ants, nearly dead. He took her to the hospital and the nurses just took care of her.
During her pregnancy, Gladys locked herself in her room. Her child was born with health defects, and died a few days later. He was a “catirito,” blondie, and the stretcher that everyone suspected of was white himself. Nurses believe that more could have been done to save the kid, but Gladys said her son would be for the closest nurse to her, “her mother Alcira.”
Gladys leaned out the window and pointed to the morgue after the passing, she knew her boy was there. It’s the same window through which she now stares. When I ask how old she was when the baby died, the answer is already obvious: she was 19.
Back home, I can’t stop imagining Gladys walking through the corridors where I met her, amidst the rubble of what had been a modern and well-endowed institution, living unknowingly a delta version of a legend. A story of memory and oblivion.
This story, originally published in Spanish on La Vida de Nos, is part of the project La Vida de Nos Itinerante, where people from all over the country take part in workshops to improve their skills to tell real stories. Pictures by Luis José Boada. Translation: Josefina Blanco / First edition: Luke Robert Blake. second edition: Caracas Chronicles Team