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Nightmare in Venezuela: How a scraped knee nearly killed a 3-year-old girl

In this Aug. 16, 2016 photo, 3-year-old Ashley Pacheco sucks on her thumb as she rests in a hospital bed during her two-month stay at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela.

Ariana Cubillos, AP

CARACAS, Venezuela -- It was just a scraped knee. So 3-year-old Ashley Pacheco’s parents did what parents do: They gave her a hug, cleaned the wound twice with rubbing alcohol and thought no more of it.

Two weeks later, the little girl writhed screaming in a hospital bed. Her breathing came in ragged gasps as she begged passing patients for a sip of water.

Her mother stayed day and night in the trauma unit. She kept Ashley on an empty stomach in case she might cut in front of hundreds of other patients for emergency surgery in one of the hospital’s few functioning operating rooms.

Her father scoured Caracas for scarce antibiotics to fight the infection spreading through his daughter’s body.

They had no idea how much worse it was going to get.

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If Venezuela has become dangerous for the healthy , it is now deadly for those who fall ill.

One in three people admitted to public hospitals last year died, the government reports. The number of operational hospital beds has fallen by 40 percent since just 2014. And as the economy fails, the country is running short on 85 percent of medicines, according to the national drugstore trade group.

“I really don’t know of any other country where things have deteriorated so quickly, to such an incredible extent,” said Rafael Oriana-Escamilla, a Yale University School of Public Health professor who has worked in Latin America and Africa. “Venezuela’s health system was a model for Latin America. Now you are seeing an implosion where people cannot get basic care.”

With so little room for error, the tiniest slips, like a little girl’s tumble while chasing her brother, can lead to life-or-death crises.

Ashley’s parents had been determined to shield her from the chaos engulfing their country. As the public school system collapsed , they sent her to a private Catholic preschool. As food grew harder to find, they made sure she had protein at every meal. When water began coming out of the taps with a foul smell, they boiled it before her daily bath.

But a week after her fall in mid-July, Ashley started to run a fever.

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In this Aug. 24, 2016 photo, Oriana Pacheco gently places a bandage on the knee of her 3-year-old daughter Ashley, during their two month stay at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela.

Ariana Cubillos, AP

At the local clinic, doctors said she would soon be on the mend. Yet the fever kept rising, and her knee was swelling. So Maykol and Oriana Pacheco loaded her between them on their motorcycle and took off, determined to find a hospital that would take their case more seriously.

They went first to the public children’s hospital nearest their home, which had been hit with a wave of poisoning cases. As shortages worsen, parents are giving their kids homemade medicines and food such as bitter yuca that can be toxic if not prepared correctly. With few supplies, doctors can do little but ease some of these children into death as painlessly as possible. They didn’t have medicine for Ashley.

Next, the family tried the country’s main pediatric hospital.

There, the smell of religious incense hung thick in rooms of children with milky eyes and swollen heads. Doctors were waiting for parents to bring in shunts to drain the extra fluid from their children’s brains. There were no beds for Ashley.

As their little girl grew warmer between them, Maykol and Oriana went to the city’s largest hospital. Men were lying mostly naked on the floor in the emergency room, IV lines snaking down from poles above them. There was no room for a sick 3-year-old.

By the next morning, Ashley’s temperature had spiked to 103 degrees (39.4 degrees Celsius). Maykol was growing desperate. Out of options, he turned his motorcycle toward University Hospital, once one of the best hospitals in South America but lately better known for gang shootings in the operating rooms and stickups in the stairways.

They arrived around noon on a Saturday. Ashley’s left leg had swollen from the tip of her toe to the top of her thigh.

All at once, she was whisked into emergency care.