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A Lonely Death in Venezuela

It was likely a massive stroke that killed Mario José, but there is no good way to find out for sure. About ten years ago, he started having mini-strokes, which got more and more severe. Eventually, he developed dementia as a result. A beloved uncle and father, his family rallied around him.

On Tuesday, Mario José died alone, in a hospital in Venezuela.

In a country gripped by a humanitarian crisis the likes of which they have never seen, there is no medicine to be dispensed and very little equipment to help save patients. Children are dying. Cancer patients are dying. Thousands of people with treatable conditions are not getting treatment, and dying. Amid all this, the government of Nicolas Maduro is cracking down on and often imprisoning vocal opponents, including medical professionals who speak out.

One of those professionals is Mario José's nephew, and his neurologist, German Chique-Alfonzo. German fled Venezuela with many other medical professionals including his brother Mario. Mario is now a physiotherapist at the Bruyère clinic, German is the Education and Program Coordinator at The Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County. Mario José's son also left for a better life. Four million other Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, creating a diaspora the world over.

Soon, that number is expected to reach six million. Six million Venezuelans in a country of 30 million, displaced all over the world. Imagine something like this happening in Canada. Over the course of two years, the entire GTA has vanished, fleeing to other countries where they might have access to food and medicine. This has caused even more problems in those countries, especially Venezuela's neighbours in South America. It's too large and too sudden an influx for them to cope.

It's hard for German to think about what's going on in his home country without some despair. He works with the non-profit GenVen Society, a group dedicated to sneaking medical aid into Venezuela. But he has to admit that in the last few months, the Society has lost some of its hope and drive. He sees expatriates desperately starting Go Fund Me pages for their loved ones with illnesses back in Venezuela - but acknowledges that even if those Go Fund Me drives raise all the money that is needed, there is little chance of success. The medicine and equipment to help them simply isn't there.

One of thousands of Go Fund Me pages set up to help individuals with medical conditions in Venezuela. In the case of Mr Alfonso Leon, he has cancer and just had a stroke. He needs help through GoFundMe. His children, much like other Venezuelans, are separated throughout the world. He has one daughter in Toronto, one daughter in Houston, Texas and one son in Macedonia. All three of his children, in an international collaborative effort, are trying to help and raise money for their Dad through donations to buy medicines, medical supplies, and meet the cost of living amid hyperinflation and a tremendously difficult economy.

German gets especially sad when he thinks about Christmas. Christmas has always been a big deal in Venezuela. This is a country dedicated to singing, partying, and laughing. To being as happy as possible, especially around Christmas time. They begin celebrating December 16th, and don't stop until January 6th. There are feasts, and gifts, and endless, uplifting music.

This year, there will be no such celebrations. There will be no feast, when food is so scarce that most people don't know where they will be able to eat day to day. There will be no music, no party, and no laughter when survival is the only thing on the minds of those still suffering in the country.

German looks at this and feels guilt. He regrets deeply not being able to be there for his fellow Venezuelans, to provide them with the medical care they need and the cheer they crave. That being said, he had no other choice. Staying in Venezuela, for German and his family, was simply not an option. And yet he will never fully shake the notion that he could have done more.

German once described the Venezuelan people to me as eternal optimists. The kind of people who are always certain that things will get better. But that national identity may be in danger of disappearing. There is no end in sight to this humanitarian crisis, and the international response to it has been tepid at best, hopelessly muddled at worst.

He's thinking about his uncle Mario José today. A wonderful man who started to lose his identity a decade ago when strokes led to dementia which led to more strokes. On Tuesday, when he heard the news, German said to me "I was his neurologist - if I had been there maybe I could have saved him".

I asked if he would have had access to medicine the doctors there did not have. Or equipment they lacked, or the food and water and necessities of life that could have kept uncle Mario José alive a little longer. German thought about it for a second.

"Probably not."

That may be the most depressing thing. That even if you put hundreds, or thousands, or millions of doctors in Venezuela, there is still almost nothing they can do for patients. Mario José is not the first patient German has lost since coming to Canada, and he will not be the last. And in Venezuela, he is just one of thousands who will die in the coming years. Alone.


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