For Venezuela’s hospital patients, a standoff at the border could be their end

Abraham Estrada, 12, Andres Fernandez, 15, (in the wheel chair) and Winder Rangel, 9, are waiting for their lunch.
Abraham Estrada, 12, Andres Fernandez, 15, (in the wheel chair) and Winder Rangel, 9, are waiting for their lunch. Special to the Miami Herald

For this skinny boy, life hangs on the thin rubber catheter running into his arm. If it stays in it could kill him. If it comes out it could kill him.

Andres Fernández looks more like an 8-year-old boy than the 15-year-old teenager that he is. Andres is one of 15 patients at the nephrology department at the J.M. de los Ríos Hospital in Caracas, the biggest children’s hospital in Venezuela. And Fernandez’s last hope might be the international medical aid that is now idling at the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

The boy is one of the most critical cases in this department, which treats kidney disease. The catheter that administers fluids into his gaunt body needs to be replaced with a new one to prevent a dangerous infection. Yet there is a conundrum: This little tube is the last one the hospital has. It’s out of catheters, and if it’s removed to prevent infection he will die.

This tube is Andres’ lifeline right now and yet it could also cause his death.

“I can’t afford to buy my boy a new catheter and if by a miracle I would have the money, this thing does not exist in Venezuela,” says his mother Vicki, 32, as she glances at the worn-out catheter that cost about $150 dollar. Fernández gazes back at his mother with the look of a crushed soul. He has been in the hospital for six months.

Andres Fernandez,15, has been hospitalized at the J.M Los Rios hospital for the last six months due to kidney problems. In 2017 he spent seven months in the hospital. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

These days, Vicki’s attention is split between her son and the stand-off at the border where tons of food and medical supplies are ready to be wheeled into the country. The opposition claims that the aid would provide relief to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans now in critical condition. However, the Nicolás Maduro government is blocking the humanitarian aid, calling the initiative a propaganda “show” and a U.S. military invasion in disguise.

“They have the catheters on those trucks for sure,” Vicki uttered.

Ramsses Millan, 5, (in the foreground) is watching their favorite cartoon with two friends while seated in the corridor at the nephrology department at a hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

At one point, there were 35 young patients with malfunctioning kidneys who were depending on the dialysis machines at the J.M. de los Ríos Hospital. Some were cured, some were transferred to other hospitals, but most of them died from inevitable complications but also due to the lack of medical equipment and missing medicine such as antibiotics.

“Last year, 12 children passed away. As for the year 2019, we have three deaths so far,” said Belen Arteaga, the head of the nephrology department, as she flipped through her notes, staring at the names of the dead children.

Fernández’s catheter should have been removed last month — having passed its expiration date. Two years ago the boy would have had a chance to walk out of the hospital with the odds high that he would be completely cured. The hospital was performing its own kidney transplants. Up to 20 children a year went home with a new kidney.

However, the transplant department closed down amidst Venezuela’s devastating economic crisis. So did the hospital’s laboratory, and just one out of eight operating rooms is now functioning at the neurosurgery department.

Jeandel Silva, 13, is receiving a painful medical treatment at the nephrology ward of a hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

“And this señor doesn’t let in the international help? The only merchandise they’re allowing in are narcotics,” said Ariannys Gómez, whose five-year-old son was hospitalized with kidney problems five months ago. She was referring to accusations that some in Maduro’s inner circle are accused of drug trafficking.

When news spread that the military stationed at the hospital were reportedly on their way in to prevent them from talking to a journalist, the mothers were infuriated.

“Will they buy us catheters?” asked Gómez. She believed the publicity could help her son and other children at the hospital find badly needed surgical instruments and medicine. No one from the military ever came to the floor.

The doctors here have experienced their own “humanitarian blockade.” They can’t bring medicine into the hospital themselves. The military guards and government vigilantes constantly search everyone’s bags.

“They [the government] want to keep up appearances that everything is fine. If they allow us to bring in supplies from the outside, that would be their acknowledgment that we are indeed in dramatic need of medicine and medical tools, ” Belen Arteaga said, her voice exasperated.

Edgar Sotillo who works in the neurosurgery department just a floor above nephrology believes there’s another reason for the vigorous controls at the hospital entrance.

“We doctors can be accused of enriching ourselves through the black market,” said Sotillo, who, like Arteaga, struggles with a constant lack of medical supplies and medical equipment such as X-ray machines.

Infuriated mothers who assist their sick children around the clock are quick to denounce Maduro and his soldiers, calling their action at the border cruel and dangerous . The broader truth is that there are also some soldiers whose own children are in life-threatening situations.

“We have military members who don’t have access to medical supplies because they are low ranking soldiers. They cannot, unlike generals or colonels, help themselves and their loved ones because they don’t control the distribution of medicine,” said a doctor who works at the Carlos Arvelo military hospital in Caracas, and asked not be identified for fear of reprisals.

These soldiers, he explained, are all in favor of the humanitarian help at the border coming into the country. They believe the aid is to help sick Venezuelans, not to destroy them, as the government contends.

Back at J.M. de los Ríos Hospital, the parents continue their anxious vigils.

“I don’t want my son to die,” said Gómez, as she checked her phone for the latest news from the border. “I hope I still have many years ahead of me to enjoy his company.”