Gunmen wreak havoc in Caracas emergency rooms
At first, the operating room doctors thought the quiet man in jeans was a distressed family member. One shouted at him to leave as another fought to save the gunshot patient unconscious on the table.
The anesthesiologist was the first to see the man's gun. He dove to the ground, and then listened as dozens of shots rang out, thinking, "So this is how I die."
For years, hospitals were one of the few safe havens in this mind-bogglingly violent Latin American country.
No longer. The emergency room murder of a 27-year-old patient by the very gang member who allegedly put him there in the first place is one of a string of recent attacks and ugly confrontations that have shattered physicians' sense of security.
"It's a scandal, to kill someone inside a hospital. It's complete social deterioration," said José Manuel Olivares, an oncology resident at the University Hospital of Caracas, where Edinson Balsa was slain in June, along with his brother, who was waiting in the hallway. "It was never perfect, but they used to respect some boundaries."
Physicians say men now regularly enter emergency rooms waving guns to compel doctors to work miracles on injured companions or provide scarce medicine. In some cases, they go further.
Earlier this year, a man stole into an intensive care unit in the city of Maracaibo, on Venezuela's western edge, to finish the job of killing a gunshot patient, according to the local press.
Two weeks after the brothers were murdered in Caracas, another man allegedly involved in street crime was killed in a hospital across town.
Conditions are worst in the countryside. In the small town of Rio Chico, an hour and a half east of Caracas, the main hospital now has a safe room, where doctors can hide when armed friends and enemies of patients storm through, medical resident Pedro Blanco said.
A turning point came last fall, when armed gangs took control of a hospital near one of the city's slums on consecutive days, demanding medical attention for wounded comrades, one of whom arrived already dead from a gunshot to the head.