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Sick Venezuelans struggle to survive amid crumbling health system, lack of care

As Venezuela grapples with a political, economic and humanitarian crisis, its health care system is crumbling. Shortages of doctors, drugs, power and clean water have led to illness epidemics, and families suffering the consequences no longer trust the country’s disintegrating medical infrastructure to save them. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on Venezuela's health care catastrophe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our series Inside Venezuela.

    The South American country is in the midst of a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. And under that weight, its health care system is collapsing.

    With support from the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Marcia Biggs went undercover to film this report. And a warning: This story contains disturbing images.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This photograph was taken just five years ago, happier and healthier times.

    Do you remember this day?

    But now Jose Rodriguez is dying. Two years ago, he was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, and only six months ago, he found out he was actually suffering from a different lung infection.

    His daughter, Paula Conchila, is a nurse, but stopped working to take of her father.

  • Paula Conchila (through translator):

    That's why I feel so angry, because I have tried to help him, but it's impossible. I don't have the supplies.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Jose is on a treatment with several different medications, including an antibiotic that costs around $5, the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela.

  • Paula Conchila (through translator):

    If we spend money on medicine, then we don't have any money for his supplies. And with the cost of transportation when I have to take him to the doctor, we don't have money to pay for all this.

    We have different jobs, but it's not enough. This country is killing us.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And Venezuela's health care system is incapable of saving them. A shortage of drugs, doctors and nurses and even clean water has led to an epidemic of illnesses, a lack of treatment, a complete breakdown.

    And families like Jose's no longer trust the system.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    That patient you're describing, he's one of thousands. We, as doctors, have observed this. Before, they went to the hospitals. Now they prefer to die at home.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Dr. Dora Colmenares is a general surgeon in Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela, once an oil boomtown now in ruins, paralyzed by a gas shortage and rolling blackouts, which leave the city in the dark on a daily basis and are catastrophic for a hospital.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    We are living like we were living in the 19th century, when the hospitals didn't have water, when there was no electricity.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    She took us undercover into a public hospital to show us just how bad it's gotten. We had to conceal our identities and shoot on cell phones and hidden cameras because of government-supporting vigilantes called colectivos stationed in hospitals. They're often armed and monitor who comes and goes.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    It was risky for me, of course, but I don't have anything else to lose. I don't have anything else to lose.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This is the emergency room, overcrowded with people, only open during the day and lacking proper supplies or even air conditioning. Often, patients are forced to navigate up and down staircases, sometimes climbing as high as nine floors, with no functioning elevators.

    In one Maracaibo hospital, the elevator was working, but a dialysis patient was crushed last October when the elevator plunged as she was trying to exit.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    The elevator cut her in half. All of this because of the lack of maintenance. And nothing changes. She died, and that's it. One more.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Was there any investigation or anything done about this?

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    No, no, no. They tried to keep everything under wraps. And, in time, it just disappears.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We reached out to the Ministry of Health, but received no response.

    Back in the hospital, we found empty shelves, broken equipment, the ceiling was caving in, and a pharmacy with almost no medicine. Entire sections are locked and abandoned, the remains of a functioning health care center.

    Many of the doctors have left too. At public hospitals like this one, they earn less than $10 a month. And faced with these conditions, many have already joined the almost five million Venezuelans who've fled the country.

    Dr. Colmenares says, of last year's graduating class of 800 doctors at the university where she teaches, only 80 remain. And that's not to mention all the techs, nurses, and support staff who have also left.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    Ninety percent of the labs in this state are closed because there are no lab chemicals, and most of the professionals who manage the labs have left. X-rays, in this state, 95 percent of the machines don't work. We don't have scanners or MRIs.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And it's not just in Maracaibo. In the country's capital, Caracas, again undercover, we visited an oncology center with Dr. Gabriel Romero.

    There was only one functioning X-ray machine and one ultrasound for the entire hospital. There was no running water.

    No soap, no water to keep things clean. That's why it smells so bad in here.

    This area has been shut for more than a year because of water damage.

    What is this? This is empty.

    The radiotherapy department is empty of patients. Dr. Romero says this technology is antiquated. This machine came from Argentina 15 years ago and only serves as palliative care. Some machines don't work at all. Dr. Romero says there is no money for service, so machines and technicians sit idle for years.

  • Gabriel Romero:

    I don't have the key.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    You don't even have the key to this room?

  • Gabriel Romero:

    Yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How long has this door been shut?

  • Gabriel Romero:

    Five years? Seven years?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Five years?

  • Gabriel Romero:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And the 100 or so patients that used to be there daily are gone to another hospital or not getting treated at all.

    In this room, women receive chemotherapy, but for a treatment that requires a consistent drug regimen, there is not a consistent supply of drugs.

    "My brother had to bring chemotherapy medicine from Houston because we don't have it here," says this woman, who has lung cancer.

    All these women brought their own supplies, rubber gloves, intravenous tubing, even hospital gowns.

    This woman is doing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. She had to bring her own water. She had to bring her own toilet paper, and she had to bring her own chemo medicine, and her own cup to go to the bathroom in.

    The women say they are too afraid to use the bathrooms, for fear of infection.

    This is all a far cry from the system Hugo Chavez promised in 1999, when he became president and enshrined free health care into the country's constitution. He made progress when times were good, but, today, in this crisis, everything depends on what a patient can afford.

    And this health crisis is affecting the people Chavez championed, the country's most vulnerable. For children, rising malnutrition and the lack of vaccines and treatment mean a rise in preventable diseases like dengue fever, malaria and scabies.

    Thirteen-year-old Jenire loves Minnie Mouse, rabbits and the color pink, but, right now, she can barely speak. A few months ago, she developed a lump in her eye. Her mom took her to a hospital in Maracaibo, but because there were no specialists on call, she was told to wait and see.

  • Sandra Galindez (through translator):

    And all they said was, let's wait. Let's wait.

    But while waiting, it kept growing in her eye, until they realized it wasn't what they thought, and instead was an aggressive tumor, something like cancer.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    While they are grateful that she is finally getting treated here in Caracas, it's too late. She will lose her eye.

    How do you feel knowing that this could have been prevented?

  • Sandra Galindez (through translator):

    Well, this is quite a difficult situation for me. I took her to see doctors and more doctors, and nothing happened.

    It's hard to see her like this, to see her suffer and cry, in so much pain. That's truly not easy. It's an experience that I really hope no one else has to live through.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Back in Maracaibo, at the Rodriguez home, the family is desperate for help. Jose has trouble swallowing food and is wasting away.

  • Paula Conchila (through translator):

    We need help. We need an oxygen tank. I need a mattress for him to avoid bedsores. And I need a nutrition supplement. This is the most urgent.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We asked Dr. Colmenares where they could find an oxygen tank in Maracaibo. She wrote back that she didn't know. A week later, we learned that Mr. Rodriguez died.

    Dr. Colmenares says he's just one of thousands who are too sick, too poor, or too afraid to come to the hospital for treatment, and so he won't be counted in official statistics.

    She blames the regime of President Nicolas Maduro for what has become of Venezuela's health care.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    Our hospitals have become extermination camps. The people that go to them know they are going to die there.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    What you're describing to me sounds like things I have only seen in war zones.

  • Dora Colmenares (through translator):

    And this is war. We are at war. But this is something unseen. You don't see grenades, but they are killing us. They are killing our future. They are killing our children.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    She says she stays to fight for change and to keep caring for this vulnerable population.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a disturbing story, and so important to tell.

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