New York Times
April 10, 2020
By Julie Turkewitz and Isayen Herrera
Photographs by Meridith Kohut
CARACAS, Venezuela — The labor pains began in her village, in the dark.
Her baby was coming, and Milagros Vásquez, 20, needed help.
With a minidress stretched over her swollen and increasingly stressed body, Ms. Vásquez braved a motorbike journey across three rivers and gripped her belly through two jolting bus rides. But arriving at the first hospital was just the beginning.
Over the course of 40 hours, Ms. Vásquez, a former high school athletic star, visited a second hospital, a third, a fourth. We have no sterile tools, they told her at once. No incubator, they said at another.
She took another bus. She slept on a bench. She cried in the street, losing count of the number of doctors who had placed their hands inside her, measuring her body’s dilation, only to tell her to leave.
She tried the fifth hospital. We can’t help you, they said.
Finally, in Caracas, the capital, she stood outside the largest maternity ward in the country and sent up a last, desperate plea.
“Please God,” Ms. Vásquez prayed, “please don’t let me die.”
Venezuela’s public health system, once the best in Latin America, has been in a state of progressive collapse for years, crippled by a broken economy overseen by an increasingly authoritarian government. But few parts of that system have been as damaged as its maternity wards, where the most critical birthing tools — vital sign monitors, ventilators, sanitation systems — have broken down or just disappeared, sometimes forcing doctors to turn women away.
About half of the country’s physicians, some 30,000 people, have left in recent years, many of them desperate to save their own families, according to the Venezuelan Medical Federation.
The true impact of this on mothers and babies is unknown. The most recent data come from 2016, when maternal deaths shot up by 65 percent and infant mortality rose by 30 percent in a single year. The minister who published that information was promptly fired — and new statistics have been treated as a state secret since.
To understand what it is like to give birth in this shattered system, we followed pregnant women to six hospitals in Venezuela, and one across the border in Colombia, as they sought to deliver.
To give birth in Venezuela today is to risk death — for both the woman and her child.
Ms. Vásquez was once a high school handball player so celebrated for her strength and skill that she traveled to Latin America representing Venezuela.
But one day this January, on the doorstep of a towering Caracas hospital, Concepción Palacios, she crumpled, sobbing, her arms around the waist of her mother, Cristina, who pounded on the door, begging for her daughter to be admitted.