Gladys Avila, 73 years old, worked all her life selling clothes and homemade food. She remembers that it costs her a big deal of sacrifice to buy an apartment in western Maracaibo, two cars and raised four children to become professionals. At that time, hard work was the guarantee of her old age. She never imagined she would end up sick and alone like someone serving a sentence.
La Negra, as she is known by her friends, has a long list of ailments. Type two diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, generalized osteoarthritis and cataracts. In addition, she suffers from migraine attacks that leave her in bed for days at a time.
Ten years ago, inflammation of her joints wore out the kneecap in her left leg. After an operation, she managed to get a prosthesis fitted at a medical charitable foundation, but her osteoarthritis is so advanced that the pains keep her imprisoned in her own home.
It's been many years since I've been to a traumatologist because health care is unaffordable and I don't have the money for it. The pain prevents me from going out on the street, so I am subjected to these four walls, and in the last five years I have gotten worse - said Gladys sitting in an old rocking chair in the living room of her apartment.
Like many older adults in Zulia state, the Venezuelan diaspora also knocked on her door. She recounts that two of her children left for the United States five years ago due to the country's crisis. My oldest daughter did not want to leave but her health forced her because she stopped getting her epilepsy and thyroid treatment here. She had to migrate to Chile - she says.
The last to leave was her youngest son Tony, who struggled for six years with bone cancer. Two years ago he went to the United States in the hope of getting a prosthesis after his left leg was amputated, but while there the doctors diagnosed metastasis and he died.
Before leaving for the United States, Tony asked his mother to take care of his father, Gonzalo Chourio, who is 87 years old and has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for seven years.
I never imagined that my son would die in the United States, so as an act of humanity I stayed with the old man and now I take care of him - revealed Gladys, who had already been separated from the father of her children for more than 30 years.
Money shipments in exchange for loneliness
The family situation is a topic that Gladys finds difficult to talk about. She pauses, stares at her hands and says: Being alone and sick is difficult. I hide it from my children, but sometimes I fall into a terrible depression, which at the end of the day is also one more thing you get sick of. In fact, sometimes I can't even talk about it. -
Just like her children, her siblings, grandchildren and nieces and nephews also left the country. She says it weighs heavily on her soul because she has grandchildren and great-grandchildren she has yet to meet. I need them, I miss them and the memories kill me, but I have to carry on.
The woman wipes her face, takes a breath and continues. I can't break down, it's something I can't afford because it would affect my health more, but it's very difficult because to stay in this country I had to stay alone, they do what they can to give me what I need, but being alone is hard and I don't wish it to anyone -
A year ago Gladys lost her life partner, Alexis Más y Rubí, her second husband. A stroke caused by stress kept him in the hospital for two days until he died. She says that his death was a jolt for her and she understood that she had to continue fighting.
The stress of the situation in the country killed him. He wouldn't buy his stress medicine so that he could afford to buy mine - Gladys says in tears.
Every month her children send from the United States the equivalent of 100 dollars for medicine and food, in addition to the help she receives from a granddaughter in Chile, but more than half of the money is spent on medicines.
Sometimes I can´t cope with the whole thing, because money is less and less, every month I buy less, everything is very expensive and you have to pay in dollars -
Complying with the diet Gladys needs, does not fit her pocket. She eats topocho (green plantain) with cottage cheese, pumpkin and eggs if she has enough. We, sick people don't go on a diet, we eat what we have or what we can afford, it's as simple as that - she confessed.
Gladys' health has been declining since she became uninsured a little over five years ago. I used to enjoy the insurance of my son who worked in a solid company, but since he left, I was left with nothing. Now I have to pay for my consultations at a clinic, which I go to once a year, if at all, because the hospitals are useless, there is nothing, you have nowhere to go
The lack of gasoline is another issue that affects Gladys' mobility; it is increasingly difficult for her to get a neighbor to take her to the doctor. Going by cab costs her up to US$40 round trip, in addition to the consultation fee of US$25, which is why she has stopped treating her osteoarthritis and hardly takes any treatment for her heart and blood pressure.
Gladys should be in control with at least five specialists. Internist, traumatologist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist and ophthalmologist. But paying for that medical care would cost her an average of $150 a month.
I control everything else with infusions. I take chamomile, star anise, I try not to eat what hurts me and that's how I go. If I buy all the medicines and go to the doctor, I couldn´t eat - he said flatly.
Before this time, I could go to any hospital and have quality medical care. Today there are no hospitals, no outpatient clinics, nothing that work. Now it is more difficult, there are millions of people like me. Right here a neighbor died on December 30 because of COVID 19. He didn't have enough money for medicine, he was also alone like me - Gladys lamented.
Last year I got a very bad gallbladder pain and a neighbor took me to the University Hospital. I will never forget what I went through there. They took me out with the serum to the parking lot because there were patients even on the floor. There was nothing, no supplies. What I experienced there was horrible".
A gesture of humanity
Lying on the bed in one of the rooms of Gladys' apartment, Gonzalo, her ex-husband, spends his days. Due to his treatment, he spends most of the day sleeping, but at other times he manages to overcome the effect of the tranquilizers.
I have a hard time because Gonzalo no longer controls his sphincters and he goes anywhere in the house. I have to be very attentive when the lights go out because I can hardly see and he gets desperate. He doesn't let himself be bathed and everything is a process", said the black woman.
The stress has caused Gladys to have a sleep disorder. On nights when she does not sleep, migraine attacks her mercilessly throughout the next day. The stress makes me more depressed, we have both been on the verge of falling when I take him to the bathroom, because I have no strength, I can't handle him - she confessed.
Being in charge of another person in these conditions is exhausting and overwhelming. I cling to God, I kneel down and cry and ask him to give me strength because sometimes I feel like I can't take it anymore -
After a long silence, Gladys acknowledges that her current reality is not what she expected.
It is unfair that people like me, who have worked all our lives to have a dignified old age, are far from even having peace of mind. It is an immense sadness, because I planned my old age, I worked hard for it and now I am alone, condemned to be locked up because of my illnesses. It is a very big disappointment because everything I planned for the end of my life fell apart - said Gladys, holding back tears.
Quality of life is something that vanished many years ago in Venezuela, according to Gladys. The lack of water and electricity are situations that she confesses fill her with anguish.
It seems unbelievable, but the problem of services makes you sicker. You can have all the medicines, but if you don't have peace of mind, quality of life, it's the same or worse. That's why the country is more lonely every day and people are going to the United States like they were crazy -
Gladys dreams of seeing her children again and they are doing everything financially possible to take her to the United States. They want to buy insurance for her and evaluate the possibility of eye surgery for her mother, as well as getting her under control with her other illnesses.
How much I would give to recover my health, but in these conditions it is difficult, I still feel young and I would like to fend for myself, not to depend on anyone. The only thing I want is to be quiet - concluded the woman.