There was nothing the doctors could do. In almost total darkness, broken only by the beam of a couple of torches and the glow from their mobile phones, the hospital staff watched helplessly as their patient died in front of them. The elderly woman was suffering a blood clot in her lungs – a common, but life-threatening problem that can be treated with the right drugs and equipment.
Everything the doctors needed to save the woman – including a mechanical ventilator – was tantalisingly close, in the intensive care unit several floors below. But with no power in the nine-floor hospital in Maracay, they had no way to reach it. Without electricity the lifts did not work.
It was a situation being played out in hospitals dotted all over Venezuela in March this year during a five-day nationwide power black out that accompanied the growing political and economic crisis facing the South American country. Unprepared for the sudden loss of power, back-up generators in some hospitals failed while others only had enough energy to keep a few of the most vital wards functioning.
By the end of the five days an estimated 26 people had died in the country’s hospitals as a result of the power outage, according to figures collated by Doctors for Health, a group of concerned medics that have been monitoring the growing health crisis in Venezuela. Among those who died were kidney failure patients who could not get the vital dialysis treatment they needed, and gunshot victims on whom surgeons could not operate in the near darkness.
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Alongside the deaths were stories of pregnant women giving birth in dark hospital wards, doctors treating patients and surgeons performing operations using their mobile phones as torches, and babies in failing incubators.