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Venezuelans brave COVID wing to bathe, feed sick loved ones

October 27, 2020 GMT
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Photographed through a door from outside the José Gregorio Hernández Hospital, Mirley Avila feeds her father Miguel Avila inside the COVID-19 wing in the Catia neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, on a day when there weren't enough nurses so they let her in to feed him, change his sheets and undergarments. According to Caracas Nurses College President Ana Rosario Contreras, a 2018 survey by the organization found that at least 6,000 nurses have abandoned Venezuela and that the number has grown since. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
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Photographed through a door from outside the José Gregorio Hernández Hospital, Mirley Avila feeds her father Miguel Avila inside the COVID-19 wing in the Catia neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, on a day when there weren't enough nurses so they let her in to feed him, change his sheets and undergarments. According to Caracas Nurses College President Ana Rosario Contreras, a 2018 survey by the organization found that at least 6,000 nurses have abandoned Venezuela and that the number has grown since. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaning against a hospital wall for balance, Elena Suazo wiggled each foot into blue protective pants. Then she slipped her arms into a surgical gown and snapped on white rubber gloves, finally ready to enter the COVID-19 wing.

Suazo is not a nurse. She is a cafeteria worker at a kindergarten in Venezuela’s capital.

But she is also a loving daughter; her 76-year-old father, sick with the virus, waited inside. And in this ruined country, the only way to ensure that he received the care he needed was to do it herself -- regardless of the dangers to her own health.

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“You do everything you can in the name of love,” said Suazo, 47. “If that person is your blood relative, you don’t even hesitate.”

Hospitals across the once wealthy South American nation lack enough doctors and nurses to confront the coronavirus pandemic. As thousands of trained health care workers emigrated in recent years, some hospital wings have closed. Others keep operating but with high caseloads.

The shortage leaves families rushing to fill the void at facilities that treat the poor, like José Gregorio Hernández Hospital, in the middle of a sweeping Caracas barrio. They feed them, bathe them and change their bedsheets -- tasks normally done by trained medical professionals.

“I take care of him quickly, changing his clothes, feeding him, and then I leave,” Suazo said. “You can’t stay inside there long.”

This kind of thing has long been common in poor nations, places like South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo in sub-Saharan Africa, health experts say. But it’s only now come to Venezuela, which was once a wealthy nation, sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves.

Critics blame 20 years of a socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chávez for destroying oil production, leading to an unrelenting economic crisis. A recent round of financial sanctions exacted by Washington against President Nicolás Maduro has made life even harder.

In recent years, an estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled the nation of 30 million. Among them are roughly 33,000 doctors -- 30% of Venezuela’s physicians, according to Dr. Douglas León Natera, president of the Federation of Venezuelan Doctors.

Care is augmented by nearly 2,000 specialists sent by socialist ally Cuba to help battle the pandemic, and by several thousand less-skilled Cuban doctors who already were here. But it’s not enough.

At least 6,000 nurses also abandoned Venezuela, said Ana Rosario Contreras, president of the Caracas Nurses College, citing a 2018 survey by the organization. The number has only grown since, she said.

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Contreras said it’s common to see one nurse responsible for up to 60 patients — an impossible task. International standards call for one nurse for five or six patients.

“We’re living a kind of pandemonium,” she said. “Our salary isn’t even enough to cover the cost of public transportation to simply get to work at the hospitals.”

Health care workers interviewed by The Associated Press said doctors at public hospitals earn less than $12 a month, and nurses bring home roughly $6. Working the night shift brings a little more.

Suazo says how her father contracted the coronavirus is a mystery.

Gavino Suazo’s temperature recently soared and his body started to tremble. Doctors diagnosed a lung infection and sent him to the COVID-19 wing at José Gregorio Hernández Hospital.

Elena Suazo immediately sought and received approval from the hospital to care for him.

Hospital administrators denied requests by The Associated Press to enter.

But family members say the overworked hospital staffers keep the COVID-19 wing clean. The doctors and nurses are kind, they say, but there are simply too few of them. Three or four nurses typically work in the wing with 31 beds for coronavirus patients, and workers said that the same number of doctors oversee this wing and other emergency visits.

Relatives going into the COVID-19 wing put themselves at significant risk.

“In an ideal world you wouldn’t want that,” said Dr. Paul B. Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If that person’s not going to get food and water or medicine, then what do you do? It’s not unique. It’s just very sad.”

Officials in Venezuela report roughly 800 deaths from coronavirus among more than 90,000 cases throughout the country. That’s likely a gross undercount, as many fearful of the broken health care system choose rather to stay home.

An alarming 231 Venezuelan doctors, nurses and other health care workers have died of the coronavirus nationwide, reported United Doctors of Venezuela, a non-governmental group that lobbies for adequate medical supplies and labor conditions.

Workers at José Gregorio Hernández Hospital say they’ve been spared deaths, though the virus apparently has swept through its staff.

Dr. Wilfredo Sifontes, who oversees the hospital’s emergency services including its coronavirus wing, described having a fever, cough and feeling sick.

Relatives entering the coronavirus wing he oversees know what they’re getting into, he said. They “are told about the risk to themselves and others,” Sifontes said. “They assume responsibility.”

The hospital was pretty much the only option for Gavino Suazo. And his daughter’s care made his stay tolerable.

Arriving at his bedside, she changed his diaper, gave him a sponge bath and replaced his bedsheet with a pink-and-yellow one she’d brought. She spoon-fed him soup.

“He can’t do these things by himself alone,” she said.

She did the work willingly. “I had the good fortune of having a good mother and a good father,” Suazo said. “They always looked after us.”

After nearly two weeks, doctors told Suazo her father was healthy enough to be discharged. She could arrange for the short car ride up the hill to their home.

As they left the hospital grounds, they passed relatives of those still battling the virus, waited to be let inside.

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Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this story.