By: Christian Kaleb Caruso and Patrick Sullivan
I will never forget the smell of a body. It was a hot morning, the room without refrigeration, and a deathly aura emanating from it.
The Venezuelan heat was particularly fierce that day, but the thing that dulled my senses and mind the most was the still, unbreathing figure lying in the hospital bed. Dimly I heard the nurse ask me a question.
That’s when I realized that I had failed to save her.
Sabina Romero Ferrer passed away on the evening of March 31, 2018. Even though the medical records list her cause of death as cancer, my mother’s demise was due to a more sinister disease. Yet, throughout her battle, she was determined to fight. She wrote, ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence,’ in her Bible. It became how she lived.
Her battle began in 2015. After months of fatigue my mother sought a diagnosis for her snowballing ailments. Even though test after test came back negative, she knew something was wrong. Using her connections as the head of Venezuela’s Pain and Palliative Care Unit, my mother sought tests from doctors she trusted. The results were what she feared most.
Such was the state of Venezuelan healthcare that the hospital my mother worked at refused her retirement because there was no one to replace her. She sought treatment during weeks of leave she had accumulated: six rounds of chemotherapy consisting of Doxorubicin, Dacarbazine, and hard-to-find supplements.
Shortages forced my mother to take less than the prescribed amounts of supplements to stretch them until we could get more.
Tests done early the next year revealed that the treatment was ineffective, forcing her to change medication to Gemcitabine and Docetaxel. Just when the treatment started to show positive signs, a second cancer reared its head.
With Venezuelan healthcare, the choice was between public or private health systems and while neither were perfect, they complemented each other.
My mother decided to make use of both systems; her insurance policy covered chemotherapy, while the meds came from the public sector. Blood and other tests came out of pocket. Because of rampant hyperinflation, our insurance started to dramatically raise their fees.
Much to her protest, I managed to convince her to take me off of our policy so that they would continue to cover her chemo costs, which they stopped doing regardless in 2017. What little jewelry she had was sold to cover the growing pile of bills as hyperinflation spiralled out of control.
We frequently went to the Venezuelan Institute for Social Security’s high-cost pharmacy in Caracas, where many go to receive the medicine needed for treatment. It sounds rather idyllic, but the patient experience is torturous.
A folder of documents is the cost of the pilgrimage. Miss even a single one and you will be forced to leave empty-handed.
Then comes the long queue. Dependant on the mood of the staff, patients cannot be accompanied after a subjective point in the queue. From that point, patients have to go in on their own.
The lack of support for patients often leads to mistreatment by the staff. They hate being there, which causes them to lash out at the patients. Finally, patients are faced with the worst cruelty of all: incomplete treatments. Prescriptions are almost guaranteed to be shorted.
Obviously, cancer is no laughing matter and a doctor’s prescription for it is not a recommendation, but the unspoken truth was that, with dwindling supplies thanks to the slow collapse of the Socialist regime, there simply isn’t enough for everyone.
My mother had to make do with the incomplete treatment and supplements. Sometimes someone would procure them for her, either in the form of donation, smuggled supplies, or by finding someone willing to sell their own rations. Sometimes, her former colleagues would steal supplies from their workplace just to give to her.
A cousin managed to procure a few rare meds over the course of a few weeks. She hid them inside of boxes of less sought after items so that they would safely travel via a private mail courier.
Obtaining painkillers eventually became an odyssey of its own. My mother could not take acetaminophen, but Ibuprofen was the common alternative. I regularly had to drive to different pharmacies in hopes of finding some.
I was eventually able to gain a steady supply thanks to the kindness of strangers, who shipped some from abroad and declared them as ‘vitamins’ for customs. Two large bottles were shipped and, even though only one made it here, it was still more than enough.
Antacids were one of the hardest things to obtain. The Venezuelan regime banned the import of antacids because of its usage to neutralize the effects of tear gas, making it nearly impossible to find.
Widespread medicinal shortages began to affect her treatment, making Docetaxel nearly impossible to get. For better or worse, her doctor decided to continue using only Gemcitabine for chemo.
No longer feeling comfortable with him, because he continued to reassure her that everything was proceeding fine despite the partial treatment, my mother sought a second opinion. The doctor she found delivered the realities of her situation: because she was using only one medication, the tumor was growing unstable again.
The new treatment prescribed consisted of Ifosfamide and Mesna, which was very difficult to obtain. Most of it came as donations from the nurses, other patients, and people smuggling it in through the mail system.
Getting tests were becoming difficult as well. Her CT scans required hard-to-find double contrast. It got so bad that the only thing available for ultrasounds were photos nurses would take of the monitor screen.
Markers crucial for blood tests became so scarce that I had to drive around with my mother’s blood vials hoping to find a place that had most of the tests available.
Later we found out the Ifosfamide treatment wasn’t effective and her tumor continued to worsen. The doctor prescribed her Pazopanib (Votrient). It causes a series of sometimes irreversible side effects, but was promised to be very effective.
Obtaining a supply, however, was impossible. A place that specializes in meds had sold their last box the prior year. Instead she was offered Thalidomide, a substitute chemo that wasn’t what she needed, but was better than nothing. Soon she started to lose mobility in her legs.
At the impossibility of finding Votrient, a former colleague of hers managed to secure Strivaga (Regorafenib), which, just like Thalidomide, was not the proper treatment for her cancer, but better than nothing. She immediately felt its effects, with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) being one of the most intense.
It was during these days I saw her at the verge of giving up. She could no longer walk, eat properly, or even pray. One night, after all of the years of struggles and hardship broke her down and she told me, “I think you need to start looking for a hole to bury me in.”
She passed away a few hours later. I returned the Strivaga bottles in hopes that they would get to someone that needed them. I could’ve made up to $8,000 USD selling them through the black market, but I couldn’t have done that. That’s not what my mother would’ve wanted.
It’s hard to keep moving towards the dream of escape and yet I made a promise to her on her deathbed; that my brother and I would live a better life. It is the main driving force that keeps me going, even during times when the deck seems to be stacked against us.
During our struggles I’ve been working on my own dream, writing a novel series. To be able to create something while being surrounded by so much entropy, loss, and destruction is what keeps me moving forwards through the darkness. My greatest hope is that it becomes the catalyst for a better life and that it presents me with the tools and resources I need to help others.
Like the cancer that has stripped my mother away from us, socialism has only wreaked havoc on the once prosperous Venezuela. The most painful things in life is watching the slow mechanisms of evil rot what you love from the inside, while you are unable to lift a finger to stop it.
But watching my mother struggle against the evils that lay claim to her taught me how to struggle myself. She taught me that no matter what, there is always hope, to keep moving forward, to keep smiling. I may not be able to save lives in the same manner that my mother did, but if I can find a way to be a force of good in this world, then I’ll be able to become the son she deserves to have.
You can check out Kaleb’s novel teaser, Sword of a Nation here!
Also, check out Kaleb’s blog for more socialism insanity
And follow on Twitter at @KalebPrime
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.