Doctors Without Medicine — The Challenges of a Young Venezuelan Physician

“I know what I must do, but I can’t do it.”

Dr. Lenin Mejías Peña checks up on a young patient in Venezuela.
Dr. Lenin Mejías Peña checks up on a young patient in Venezuela. (photo: Photo by Jonathan Liedl)

Lenin Mejías Peña is like a builder without a hammer, a writer without a pen. The 26-year-old doctor can diagnose an illness, but is more often than not ill-equipped to do much about it.

Medicine is in increasingly short supply in Venezuela, especially in the eastern part of the country where Dr. Mejías Peña lives and serves—far from Caracas and far down the Maduro regime’s priority list. Because the oil rich nation simply imported most of its goods for decades, nearly no medicine is produced within Venezuela’s borders. So, as the country’s economy has fallen apart, leaving it with no purchasing power in the global market, Venezuela’s medicine supply has collapsed with it. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimates the country is suffering from an 85 percent shortage of medicine.

What’s more, the government has barred multiple international aid agencies, like Catholic Relief Services, from entering the country to address the unfolding crisis. Medicine that does make it in may be confiscated by government agents or even pharmacists themselves, who save it for family or sell it on the black market at an exorbitant rate.

As a result, Dr. Mejías Peña says people in his hometown of Ciudad Bolivar are dying of treatable conditions, like hypertension and diabetes. Pain from chronic illnesses is unmanageable, and even something like diarrhea can be problematic, with no saline solution available to address dehydration. And without adequate medication, cases of malaria, typhoid fever, and even tuberculous are on the rise.

The young doctor says he’ll often prescribe a medicine to someone, knowing that they won’t be able to get it at any pharmacy.

“It’s really frustrating,” says Dr. Mejías Peña, who sometimes feels like the profession he studied isn’t useful in Venezuela’s present status. “I know what I must do, but I can’t do it.”

Most of Dr. Mejías Peña med school classmates have exited the country for opportunities elsewhere, joining an exodus of 13,000 Venezuelan doctors over the past four years. He can name off the countries his colleagues have left for: Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, the United States. In these places, they’ll not only find better pay for their profession, but health care systems to support them in their work.

Additionally, they won’t have to complete a year of obligatory service in the increasingly lawless Venezuelan countryside, where Dr. Mejías Peña says doctors are often threatened with violence. At his current assignment, a doctor was previously kidnapped, and forced by gunpoint to accompany a wounded patient on a car ride to the hospital in Ciudad Bolivar.

Dr. Mejías Peña could have joined his colleagues and left his increasingly violent and broken homeland. Though young, he is exceptionally bright, speaking English, French, and German in addition to his native Spanish. His work is characterized by an exceptional attention to detail and dedication. Clearly, he could’ve been successful practicing medicine in another country, reaping the monetary compensation typical for people with his level of skill and expertise.

But he’s made the decision to stay in Ciudad Bolivar, a city of over 350,000. And he doesn’t see his decision as a sacrifice. While he may not be being paid like a doctor, or be as effective as he could be elsewhere, he believes there’s something deeper underlying his profession, something that he can offer even in the midst of a shattered health care system: his service.

“I feel I must give to the people,” he says. “Because I like helping. That’s the reason why I became a doctor. And that’s why I’m here now.”

Dr. Mejías Peña desire to serve his community led him to Caritas Ciudad Bolivar, the local branch of the international Catholic charity, where he began volunteering in May 2017 and is now a member of the staff.

At Caritas, Dr. Mejías Peña has systematically re-organized the charity’s medicine bank, which daily delivers needed pharmaceuticals to 200 people in need. Not only does it make it easier for staff and volunteers to find the right medicine within storage, but the new system also tracks what medicines are in need, how they’re being used, and what impact the program is having. Such metrics are vitally important when making appeals for aid from foreign groups, which is how Caritas Ciudad Bolivar receives most of its medicine. The aid typically comes from Venezuelan ex-pats, who collect medicine abroad and bring it into the country in suitcases onboard passenger airlines.

Dr. Mejías Peña has also been responsible for implementing the SAMANES program in Ciudad Bolivar. An initiative of the national division of Caritas, the program addresses child malnutrition, which has increased dramatically during the Venezuelan crisis; some reports estimate that now over half of all Venezuelan children under five are affected by or at risk of malnutrition.

SAMANES addresses the crisis by distributing food kits with enriched nutritional content, monitoring at-risk and affected children, and providing education on nutrition to families and the wider community. The program served 800 malnourished and at-risk children last month alone.

Dr. Mejías Peña decision to stay and serve in Venezuela has saved the lives of others. But, providentially, his work with Caritas may also be playing a role in his own salvation. Before joining the nonprofit, he says he was a Catholic in name only. He had never been baptized, and his distance from his nominal faith increased during his time in university, where he says there is little religious belief among many of the students, especially those studying in scientific fields.

Working with Caritas and coming in closer contact with priests and other committed Catholics has helped Dr. Mejías Peña overcome previous challenges to his belief in God and the Church, such as the relationship between faith and reason and the problem of suffering in the world. He now says he is closer to God, and received the sacraments of initiation this past Easter triduum.

“When you work in charity, you can see that God uses these people to do this job, to help others. And you can see that there is a God who is helping people.”

A God who is helping people using selfless instruments, like Dr. Mejías Peña.