My brother John has been living in Venezuela for the last 3 months teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). All the reports coming back were that he was being very successful and fitting in well to this new culture.
On the 31st December 2007 I heard the exciting news that he was coming home from Caracas, Venezuela for a few weeks. He had had a bad cold and while he was originally planning on coming home later in January Mum changed his flight to bring him home earlier for some home comforts. And then at 8am on the 1st January 2008, I had a frantic phone call from my mother to tell me that they had a cryptic message on myspace saying that John was seriously ill in a hospital near Caracas airport and had not been allowed to fly by Air France (not much more information than that from someone called Caroline).
This set the family into a panic and we spent the first part of the morning trying to locate a hospital near the airport. We managed to find out that there is a hospital called ‘Jose Maria Vargas’ but none of the telephone numbers would work partly I think because it was New Years Day and all the networks were down. Clare, my wife remembered that Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart lived in Caracas for a while and we put up an urgent post on the Foot Stompin’ forum to try and find her as her mobile wasn’t answering (she turned out to be in mid flight from the middle east). It was great to see so many folks texting me her number on New Years Day.
Myself, Clare and the children then headed off for Edinburgh so we could all work in together. When we arrived mum informed me that an amazing man Gonzalo Mazzei (husband of singer Margaret Bennett), a native of Venezuela had agreed to give up his New Years Day and spend it phoning Caracas for us. At first when he arrived we were having no luck with our enquiries. The lines seemed to be down all over Venezuela and we still didn’t really know where John was. We were combing the internet for phone numbers and hospitals. Gonzalo (with local knowledge) knew that the University Hospital was going to be key to the operation as that was the centre of specialisms in the country.
At this point all our family was arriving at the house as 1st January is usually a big celebration where my mum cooks lots of food and we all have a laugh. We had forgotten the baby cot in our haste and everybody was spending their time making sure the baby didn’t pull down the Christmas tree. The young ones weren’t really noticing that much was wrong as they were playing but the adults didn’t really know what to do with themselves.
It was in the middle of the afternoon when I finally received lots more messages from ‘Elizabeth’ a friend of John in Caracas on myspace giving us more information and informed us that John after a very stressful time was settled in the University Hospital, thanks to Elizabeth, Mark from the British Consulate and the Doctor from Air France. From that Gonzalo managed to talk to a doctor and ascertain John’s position. It was then we had to decide what to do. I was always going to fly over to Caracas and Gonzalo had (mercifully) offered his services to come with me. While I was out of the room and Clare was looking at possible flights – which were very expensive – I got the call from Clare to come to the office immediately. Gonzalo had made another call to the Doctors in Caracas and they had said that it wasn’t looking good for John and we needed to get there fast. I immediately made the decision that my Dad had to travel with us as purely I felt that if John wasn’t going to make it back alive my dad should be there.
We then managed to find flights on Expedia that left for Caracas at 6am on the 2nd January – approximately 12 hours after the booking. We would reach there at 3pm, Venezuela time on the 2nd. We then had a miserable bit of turkey and trifle without cream on the top but no-one really had any appetite. I then went home to pack my cases and Gonzalo stayed with mum and dad.
We all met at 3.30am to drive to the airport. The journey was ok. I laughed at the films on the plane as they were American dubbed into French and Spanish with English subtitles which you strained to see on the far away screens. When we arrived at the airport the immigration queues were massive and it took us a while to get through them. As soon as we made it to the forecourt we were approached by lots of people trying to drive, sell, buy things from us. One of the locals bought our dollars at a rate of 4 to 1. Venezuelans are only allowed to take 400 dollars out of the country so these guys buy them off tourists at a very decent rate (twice that of the banks) and sell them on at a higher rate. It was quickly coming apparent that there was no English spoken in this place and definitely no understanding. Gonzalo was doing all the communicating and managed to sort us out with a taxi to the hospital.
The drive to the hospital was very interesting – our first taste of Venezuelan driving. I can only say one thing about it – THEY’RE MAD!! Red lights, lanes – I don’t know why they bother with them. The poverty was very apparent as we drove through slums built on top of themselves on top of mountains. It was very scary, the prospect of what we were getting ourselves into and what John had got himself into. I suppose I had resolved we would bring him home alive but there were a lot of negative thoughts going through my brain.
Since the night before I had been in contact with Elizabeth and I had wired (Western Union) money for her to pay for some of the things that John needed. The thing about the University Hospital is that it was free and the quality of medical advice was excellent but they didn’t have the materials. John (or relatives) had to supply his own bed linen, buy some of his medicine, supply blood. I had spoken to John briefly the night before but he wasn’t with it and I hadn’t got much out of him. Elizabeth had been amazing (alongwith Mark from the Consulate) and had been supplying him – with the help of her mother – with bed linen etc and also standing by his bed, making sure he was ok.
Elizabeth had arranged to meet us outside the hospital which just to add to everything was shut due to all the students being on holiday. When we made it to the correct entrance the next issue arose. There were security guards at the door to the hospital and they weren’t going to let us in. There is no reception to speak of and these guys control everything. We finally made it passed them with some strong persuasion from Gonzalo and Elizabeth (there was definitely no English here) and entered the hospital. What a place… Long live the NHS.
We got to the 2nd floor and found John’s shared ward (4 beds). I was prepared for a shock but I don’t I think I expected to see my brother rigid, eyes popping out of his head and so thin. The one positive was that he was alive and recognised us. You could see visible relief on his face when we walked in – he couldn’t believe we were there. We instantly gave him a big kiss and tried to get some answers. Gonzalo immediately sought out the Doctor and found out his status. He was on oxygen and had various fluids going into his arm. The doctors were most worried at that time at the level of creatine in his blood which was increasing the acidity and not allowing oxygen to flow throughout his body. I found out later that they treated him by feeding him sodium bicarbonate (alkaline) which neutralised the acid. They were also worried about John’s kidney which they thought might be rejecting.
A quick note about John: He is a haemophiliac who needed a kidney transplant from my brother Peter as both his failed – a tricky thing for a haemophiliac. In other words he is a complicated case.
At this point we discovered that we had to give blood to the hospital so John could have some for a transfusion. My dad was considered too old to give blood and this was when Gonzalo did his next amazing thing – he just gave blood with me at 6am the next morning no questions asked. We had no option and he just stepped right into the role. Before this though I had called Mark at the consulate and he arrived at the hospital. I had now decided that John couldn’t stay here, it was too dirty, too unlike our own hospitals with no uptodate equipment. To take this further I had to find out about John’s travel insurance. I knew John had purchased insurance for the trip as I had the conversation previously with him but unfortunately it had only been for 3 months and we had just entered the 4th month. The doctors were saying that he would have to stay in hospital a minimum of 12 days but this wasn’t acceptable to me so we had to find out a way home. I called home to Clare and my mum to get costs for an Air Ambulance.
Gonzalo, Mark and I then went to John’s flat and cleared his belongings into his large suitcase. It was clear from looking round that John had been ill for the last few weeks.
We then checked into a hotel and drove back to the hospital where my dad had waited with John. I must mention the beautiful Latin music the taxi driver was playing in the cab, a small diversion from matters at hand. We now had a line from the doctors but it was still difficult to get past the security guards into the hospital. We were only there for a bit and my dad decided to stay overnight with John in the hospital (as he did every night of our stay).
The next morning we rose at 5am to go and give blood. We were there first at 5.30am and there was no movement until 6.30am. We had to fill in long forms which Gonzalo had to translate for me and then stand in more queues. The blood giving process was good and very clean. It was interesting to see the doctors improvise with little things like soft balls which you squeezed to pump the blood into the bag, and bits of plastic tied round your arm for them to find the veins. The completed blood was signed over to ‘John Thoumire’ and would be transferred for his use at another time.
We then went up to the ward where John was looking the tiniest bit better and dad had had a sleepness night on a hard empty hospital bed. Our next job was to get to the British Consulate but we had to talk to the doctors.
In the ward with John were two other patients and although we didn’t know at the time one had a pretty fatal looking liver disease and was waiting a transplant and the other boy had Aids. The wife (Flor) of the liver patient and the sister of the other man had looked after John when we weren’t there. It was really humbling to know that these people were willing to put theirselves out for John when they didn’t know who he was. Flor – who stayed in the hospital looking after her husband had bathed John the night he arrived and attended many of his needs even when we were there. This was real poverty as I had never seen before yet they and other family members in the hospital always looked out for John. Really humbling.
There was an incident when we weren’t there when a guy on crutches had offered dad a cup of coffee, took the 50,000 bolivars my dad gave him (dad had not been out the hospital and did not understand the money) and never returned with coffee or change. When the ladies on the ward heard this they were appalled and embarrassed by this man and they immediately set out to find him which they did. They brought back dad a coffee and some of his change and got the rest later. These ladies could have used this cash for themselves but it was never a thought in their heads.
We headed to the British Consulate in the rich part of town, managed to call the air ambulance company (Wings) who Clare had already spoken to and established some facts with them. We had to get back to the hospital (via Subway restaurant to get some food for ourselves and dad) and get a report from the Doctor to fax to Wings. When they received this they would be able to give us a proper quote and a timetable. At the same time Clare and mum had managed to re-mortgage our houses to pay for the ambulance and also an anonymous donor had agreed to give us the funds up front so we could pay by switch to the company (they wouldn’t do anything without the funds up front).
When we got back to the hospital Gonzalo and dad went back to the hotel to fax the report to England and dad got a small rest. I stayed with John. He was definitely becoming a little more lucid and we were able to have a laugh. Elizabeth also arrived later that afternoon and was able to give me more facts about John’s situation.
It turned out that mum changing John’s flights had been the catalyst for his survival. It is apparent to me that if he hadn’t tried to leave his flat that day he would have died in his bed. Anyway what happened was John had called Elizabeth for a loan of some cash to get a taxi to the airport (he had been unable to get to the bank and had no money). When she arrived to give it to him he had collapsed on the pavement and was surrounded by ladies trying to help him. Elizabeth then managed to get him into a taxi and drive him to the airport. Air France said he was too ill to board the flight and it was at that point that Elizabeth called the British Consulate and Mark the emergency officer came out. John was then taken to a military hospital where he had to wait for 4 hours with oxygen. The Air France doctor then managed to get him into the University Hospital – they weren’t going to let him in as there were no beds. Elizabeth and Mark really stuck by him and we have them to thank for him still being alive. I might have this slightly muddled up but they both gave up their New Years Celebrations to look after John and make sure he was safe. We are indebted to these people. The Doctors then performed more miracles to keep him on this earth.
By the time Friday came we knew that the John would probably be leaving Caracas the following day. Jobs that had to be done were washing John’s bed linen, keeping in touch with home and Wings and feeding dad! John was starting to get an appetite and we had brought in yogurts and grapes as simple things that he could eat. We bought ourselves and dad a terrible Chinese takeway but it was eaten anyway! At one point we had to change John’s tee-shirt and I saw how much weight he had actually lost. His physical figure resembled the Africans we see on the news and Live Aid. It was ridiculous and we were going to have to get to the heart of the reason for this.
On our way back into the hospital from the laundry we were called back by the security guards and it turned out that they were wanting to sell us blood. When people give blood in Venezuela they are usually giving it for a relative or friend and fill in the cards correspondingly but some people don’t do this. It turned out that the security guard was in charge of these cards and he was trying to sell 6 pints of blood (for 300,000 bolivars) and threatening us at the same time. Gonzalo was amazing with this and negotiated with them that we buy 2 or 3 pints for 100,000. We had to do this or they wouldn’t have let us in to the hospital. All the blood was safe as he was selling material that was already tested. At the same time Gonzalo was also trying to negotiate with the doctors to get John signed out and also arrange us an ambulance for the next day as it had been decided that John would go for dialysis in another hospital thanks to the permission of Dr Hernandez.
We at this time knew that the air ambulance would be arriving in Caracas at 11pm, would rest the night, meet us in the morning and then transfer John back to Edinburgh after his dialysis. On the way out of the hospital that night we met John’s doctor who informed us that he was not in on Saturday and he would be unable to sign John out of the hospital. We did eventually manage a way around this but it was a headache.
The next morning we had to come early again to give blood but this time they never opened at all and there were lots of people waiting. The blood we bought actually came in handy and we were able to give the cards to the doctor to replace what we were not able to give. Gonzalo then organised the ambulance to the other hospital. When the guys arrived to take John down to the ambulance they could get no-body to stop the lift to take John down the stairs and in the end they had to use a lift that food was normally transported in. As Gonzalo said in this society you have no people in low places as they control everything. Just before John left, Flor (the wife of the man next to John) wrote the most beautiful letter to him telling him how much she had enjoyed looking after him and how he was the son she never had. It was a lovely moment when she said goodbye to John. At this point John was doing really well and was able to eat and talk well – his understanding complete.
We thought the stress was over when we reached the next hospital but of course it wasn’t… The air ambulance crew never turned up at 11am to see John (or called me) and we only heard they were arriving at 2pm secondhand through the hospital. 2pm arrives and no sign of the crew or ambulance. The first ambulance then arrives to take John back to the University Hospital where we didn’t want to go. We had to pay them so there was no hassle. The medics eventually arrived at 3ish without the ambulance thinking it already there. They hadn’t brought anybody who could speak Spanish and never had a copy of the medical report that had been sent to Wings. We gave them a copy but they didn’t read Spanish and one of the medics said that they should be able to ‘guess’ what is going on. This was getting stressful and they were guessing John’s condition! Then there was a phonecall from Wings trying to tell us that they had told the doctor to book an ambulance but of course the doctors English wasn’t good (why should it be?) and they hadn’t booked one. Gonzalo was really angry with them and was going through the Yellow Pages trying to find private ambulances. In the end Gonzalo saved the day again by talking to the Doctor and there was an ambulance there in seconds.
The next problem to arise for the ambulance was that they couldn’t get through security at the airport, couldn’t get more petrol to fly and couldn’t get leave to take off. Palms had to be greased to achieve all of this but it could have been avoided if the company had bothered to research the country and its methods and had bothered to send someone who spoke Spanish. This was incredibly stressful for my father who though he was on the home straight. Anyway the plane finally made it into Edinburgh at 11am Sunday and John went straight to Royal Infirmary. The good news is he got out five days later feeling much better.
Gonzalo and I flew out on Sunday after more stress trying to contact the airport to see if we could fly out at all. It was a fairly quiet flight but it took us 24 hours to get home and it was exhausting.
While I do not want to repeat this ever again it was a life changing trip where I saw and experienced qualities in people that really humbled me. The 3 of us in Caracas and the family at home pulled this out of the bag and we’re all suffering for it. There is a general body weariness that pervades the households at the moment and a level of astonishment at the situation we were in. We’ll never be 100% sure why John arrived at this place but we do know he wasn’t looking after himself properly. We know that the wages were low and variable and it's obvious now that he was finding it very difficult to make ends meet but was too proud to say so. We still find it hard to believe he didn't phone and as for help.
Subsequently it has been made clear to us by other folks how well John had been doing in Venezuela and this last episode seems to be a blip
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