The Government Says There Is No Health Care Crisis In Venezuela. Doctors And Patients Disagree : Goats and Soda The government says everything is fine. But doctors and patients tell a different story, citing a lack of the most basic medicines and supplies.

Is Venezuela Having A Health Care Crisis? It Depends On Whom You Ask

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Venezuela is unraveling, wracked by political and economic chaos. It's the scene of food riots and severe medicine shortages. We'll hear now from inside a hospital there where NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talked to families who are facing life-and-death struggles to get the care they need.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: A year ago, Mari d'Alessandro got some of the worst news a mother can get. She had taken her son Hugo for a routine checkup.

MARI D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then the pediatrician told her Hugo had cancer and he was only 10.

D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She meets me at the hospital where he's being treated. And as she's explaining all of the hurdles she's faced to get him the care he needs, she breaks down.

D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "You just can't find the medicines," she says. "The doctor told me I'm going to have to pay $6,000 or $7,000 for just one of the medicines if I can even find it on the black market." This in a country where many earn the equivalent of $15 to $20 a month.

D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Emotionally, it's so jarring," she tells me, "because you get to a moment where you realize it's all up to you. My son's life at stake," she says. Venezuela's public health system is supposed to provide free care and medicine to the country's sick. But along with a shortage of food, there is now a health crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At Caracas's public University Hospital, a doctor checks on a patient who's been waiting for an operation for several weeks. The patient doesn't want her name used. She's lying on a gurney, covered with a tattered blanket.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The infection has gone down to the bone," she says. "The flesh has been eaten away. I'm worried that if it gets worse, my leg will have to be amputated," she tells me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the hospital has few of the medicines she needs, so she has to buy all of her own antibiotics. So she sends her dad out to scour the black market.

DANIEL GARIBALDI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her doctor, Daniel Garibaldi, tells me they don't even have sutures for stitches, among so many other things that are lacking. He even brings his own soap from home to wash his hands.

GARIBALDI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says things have gotten a lot worse in the last few months.

I'm asking him if he has seen people die because of the lack of medicines or care.

GARIBALDI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says people are dying, needlessly, every day. Not one but many, he says. Like most things in Venezuela, there are two very different narratives about what's happening. The government maintains there is no health crisis and refuses to accept help from international organizations.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daily, Venezuela's health minister, Luisana Melo, appears on state-run television, discussing how production of key medicines is being ramped up and how Venezuela can provide for much of what it needs. But I go to meet the president of Venezuela's medical association, Dr. Douglas Leon Natera. He charges, quite simply, that the health minister is lying.

DOUGLAS NATERA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I think the minister must be living in a different country," he tells me. "In the 300 public hospitals in Venezuela, the government is trying to hide the truth. Go to any one of them and you'll see that they only have about 5 percent of what's needed in surgical equipment and medicines," he tells me.

D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the cancer clinic, the mother I met, Mari d'Alessandro, tells me her son Hugo just finished his chemo treatment last week. She needs a particular medicine to raise his blood cell count, but she hasn't been able to find it yet.

HUGO D'ALESSANDRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask 11-year-old Hugo if he's worried. And he says, no. He says he still plans to be a paleontologist when he grows up because he loves dinosaurs and he wants to dig up their fossils. His mother hugs him tight, tears pooling in her eyes. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Caracas.

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