CARACAS—Doctor Pablo Rausseo was working in the emergency room at Vargas Hospital on the afternoon of April 11th. The short middle-aged doctor was surprised when the first patient was a gunshot victim—a young man with a single shot to the head. Rausseo guessed he was only seventeen or eighteen. In the triage system he was coded black—a non–recoverable injury. The bullet had exposed the brain. He lived about fifteen minutes, his breathing erratic, then died. He was later identified as Mohammad Merhi’s son, Jesus Capote.
Rausseo himself had gone to the march that morning, but had gone home to have lunch before starting his shift at the hospital. While he was eating, he watched the news coverage of both the march and the government supporters around Miraflores. He put two and two together and knew he was probably in for a busy afternoon. He was sure to get a lot of people with beating injuries, he thought, as well as people suffering from tear gas inhalation.
When Rausseo got to the hospital, he made additional preparations including putting a couple of stretchers in a small room as an interim morgue. He knew it was unlikely. There had been a lot of big marches in the past year and there hadn’t been any deaths. Now they already had their first fatality.
Quickly more wounded arrived. Rausseo could tell by their dress—their t-shirts, their flags and whistles—that they were with the opposition. Rausseo realized that the additional staff he had requested was not going to be enough. He began calling for more help.
“Impossible to prepare for this.”
Dr. Rausseo’s boss, Dr. Ricardo Serbanescu, was working at his private office when he got the call from the hospital. He switched on the TV and saw the footage of journalist Jorge Tortosa being shot in the head. He immediately headed for Vargas.
When Serbanescu arrived, the first thing that struck him was the big crowd gathered around the entrance. At first he figured they were either from the opposition or the government doing some sort of protest. But when he got closer he realized they had congregated there to see what was going on and to help in any way they could.
Inside was a chaotic scene. He couldn’t remember ever seeing so many wounded. There was no place to put them and many were lying on the floor. Pick up trucks were pulling up with three and four wounded a piece. There was blood everywhere.
It was very confusing and it took Serbanescu time to collect himself. Not only were there the shouts and cries of the patients, but he could tell that his staff was also very frightened. He had to make sure his people stayed focused on what they had to do.
Serbanescu realized that even though Dr. Rausseo had done a good job getting ready, this was much more than they could have ever prepared for. They were going to need a lot more supplies: more blood, more plasma, more gloves, just about everything he could think of.
It didn’t help that Vargas was in the midst of a funding crisis. In addition to the decades of neglect that all public hospitals suffered, it was also the victim of the political battle between President Chávez and the then-Greater Mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Peña. To put the squeeze on Peña, Chávez had brought the hospital’s flow of government funds to a trickle.
A whiteboard in the ER office said, “There is no PL equipment, electrodes for external pacemakers, fuses for ventilators and BiPAP, EKG paper, Bilumen and Trilumen Catheters.” On the printer a note read: “There is no toner! Not here or anywhere else in the hospital and I am not going to buy anymore.” Most months the federal portion of the employee paychecks went unpaid.
Luckily, Serbanescu had been quietly hoarding supplies here and there over the last several months—supplies that he knew they might need in the case of a “real” emergency. He kept them locked up in a special room and he was the only one with the key.
After he had broken into the extra supplies, he divided up his staff into teams: each with a surgeon, nurses, residents, and different specialists. Then Serbanescu addressed the next big problem: blood. He knew they were going to run out if they didn’t get more. He made calls to the mayor’s office, the blood bank, and to the Red Cross. When they ran out, they started taking donors. Luckily, they didn’t have to do it for long. The blood bank came through with fresh supplies.
Although incredibly low on supplies, Vargas Hospital did several things very well, like treat gunshot victims. The hospital received between 95 and 110 gunshot patients in any given week and so the surgeons had become experts at bullet wounds. Seventy five percent of the broken bones that the hospital treated were caused by bullets. At least in this respect, the wounded that arrived on April 11 th were in the best hands possible.
Wounded from both sides
The surgeons were removing a lot of handgun bullets from the victims, mostly 9 mm rounds, but they were also pulling out FAL rounds. Doctor Rausseo was struck by the damage these bullets were doing. Typically it was not uncommon for a patient hit with four and five rounds from a .38 to recover. But the military rounds were tearing these people up. They thought they could save a pregnant woman who was shot in the shoulder at a downward angle. It didn’t look that serious at first. But the bullet had traveled down and done too much damage to her organs. They couldn’t save her. Her name was Josefina Rengifo and she was 19 years old.
There was a reporter who came in saying that he had been shot in the chest. His name was Jonathan Pérez and he worked for the daily Tal Cual. The bullet had pierced his wrist and struck his chest near the heart. He had blood all over his shirt, and Roussea remembered that he was very frightened. But when they examined the wound, it was only a fraction of an inch deep. They checked the vest he had been wearing and found the bullet imbedded in his cell phone.
As the afternoon wore on, they began to get more wounded from the pro- government side—people with red berets, red t-shirts, and “Long Live Chávez” headbands. By now more staff had arrived as well as many residents. This was graduation weekend for the medical students and dozens came to help.
Two bullets, two stories
Caracas Police at the head of the march clash with pro-Chavez supporters.
Photo by Carlos Meza, Cadena Capriles
Andrés Trujillo was a member of the opposition who had been shot through the leg. When his ambulance arrived at Vargas the paramedics rushed him inside first, afraid that the bullet had cut his femoral artery—an often fatal injury.
Once inside a doctor started giving a nurse instructions. Trujillo would remember that each time the doctor asked for something, the nurse said they were out of it.
Trujillo had joined the march not only because he was incensed by the way Chávez had been treating PDVSA employees, but also because of the Enabling Law, which Trujillo saw as the act of a dictator. The 28-year-old graphic designer had been in the confrontation on Baralt Avenue, throwing rocks at the chavistas when he saw Jesus Capote shot. As he was backpedaling away, a bullet pierced his leg near the groin.
Soon another wounded young man arrived. He had a head wound. Trujillo tried to talk to him but the man kept cursing Chávez. Trujillo remembers two residents trying to help him, but the doctor told them to leave him alone. “He isn’t a priority,” he said.
The next time Trujillo turned to look at the man he was dead.
That gave Trujillo a shock. He was bleeding heavily and could hear his blood dripping onto the floor. No one had put anything on the wound to slow the bleeding.
He dug out his cell phone and called his friend Claudio, and begged him to come and take him to a private hospital.
Shortly they came back with Trujillo’s x-rays. The doctor explained that Trujillo would be all right and that he was “not a priority.” The bone had not been broken and there wasn’t any serious damage. Somehow it did not make Trujillo feel a whole lot better.
From there they took Trujillo into the main corridor outside the emergency operating room. He remembers there were seven or eight other wounded there. Some were on stretchers like Trujillo; others were sitting in blood soaked plastic chairs, others, who couldn’t find a seat or a stretcher, were lying on the floor or standing.
Trujillo would remember the terrible screams coming from the operating room. He had never heard screams like that. And the doctors too were shouting and arguing with each other about what to do. Twice he heard a doctor say the patient was dead. Trujillo watched as they wheeled the body out.
Watching all this, Trujillo was feeling increasingly panicked. “I was very nervous,” he recalls, “and very weak. I knew that at any moment I was going to pass out.” He tried to call Claudio again, but his cell phone was dead.
As he lay there, Trujillo wondered how it had come to this. He remembered back to this morning, when he and his friend Libia had joined the march on its way to Miraflores. It had been so amazing; such an incredible feeling to be a part of this thing. There were just so many people: women and children and old ladies, fat people, thin people, rich people and poor people. People were dancing and chanting and waving flags and banging pots and pans. They didn’t care that it was hot and that the highway was all torn up for construction. It didn’t matter. Because they felt they were really going to accomplish something. It reminded Trujillo of the great epic Hollywood movies. “I thought that if they ever came to do a movie about this,” he recalled, “they would need many extras.” When they had begun singing the national anthem, Trujillo found tears running down his cheeks.
Now he was here, in the middle of this nightmare, each minute feeling weaker and weaker and each minute feeling more and more certain that he was going to die.
Then Trujillo noticed a man in suit looking for someone among the wounded. Trujillo recognized him: he was a chavista and a councilman for Baruta. The person he was looking for turned out to be the boy in the stretcher next to him.
“Could you ask your dad if he could lend me his phone?” Trujillo asked the boy. He guessed that the man was his father, although he wasn’t sure. He was worried that the man might say no, somehow knowing that Trujillo was an escualido. But the man hadn’t hesitated and gave Trujillo his cell phone.
He called his friend Claudio. “Do what you have to, but get me the hell out of here!”
The marathon runner
Lying on a cot on the floor beside Trujillo was Douglas Romero, a government sympathizer who also had a bullet wound in his leg. Romero had grown up in the Sucre barrio in Petaré. One of seven brothers and sisters, the thirty-eight year old first-grade-teacher was also a marathon runner. Romero had won several marathons and dreamed of running one of the great international races like New York . He hoped to one day run through Central Park.
Romero had always been a Marxist and a socialist. His father had been a communist and his uncle had fought and died in the FALN. Romero had read and studied the works of Simón Bolívar and had found they had a lot in common with Marx. The class struggle, the similarities between the oligarchy that Bolívar spoke of and Marx’s bourgeoisie, resonated strongly with Romero. When Chávez spoke of a “Bolivarian Revolution,” Romero knew exactly where he was coming from.
When the march had headed for Miraflores, Romero had gone down to support Chávez. He had been throwing rocks at the police on Baralt Avenue when the police had surged forward in their armored trucks. As he was running away, the bullet struck him in the back of the thigh above the knee. He remembered his leg jerking forward as if someone had kicked his heel. People had quickly picked him up and taken him to the medical tent in front of the White Palace. There, paramedics had put a tourniquet on his leg before loading him into an ambulance bound for Vargas.
As he lay there among the other wounded, listening to Andrés Trujillo call for help, he was disgusted. In Romero’s eyes, the doctors were doing everything they could. In fact, Romero was impressed by how well they were handling the crisis. And here was this escualido, this petite bourgeoisie, crying for help.
Shortly, Romero watched as two young men came and took Trujillo out of the hospital.
During the afternoon of April 11 th—in less than four hours— Vargas Hospital received 75 wounded. It was chaotic, but Dr. Rausseo was stirred by the dedication and cohesiveness of the staff. By the end of the afternoon they had sixty doctors, seventy nurses and many, many volunteer residents and paramedics attending the wounded.
At ten o’clock many of the doctors met to talk about the day. Serbanescu remembers that many were angry at the government, but more than anything, they were upset about the senseless loss of life.
The whole situation made Dr. Serbanescu very sad. The majority of the victims had been very young and many of those that survived would be permanently disabled. The death of Jesus Capote was particularly difficult for him. Even though he was accustomed to these things, it was still very hard. The boy had been in a state of agony, but there was nothing they could do for him.
Serbanescu felt that what he had seen on April 11th changed him. On that day the political polarization that he felt was rupturing Venezuelan had reached out and touched him. “It gives you an idea of what ideology can do to a society,” he said, “the final effect being a large quantity of dead.” Working in the emergency room Serbanescu always had his finger on the pulse of public discontent. After April 11 th, he suspected that the violence was only going to get worse. He was sure that his ER was going to stay very busy.
Andrés Trujillo would eventually make a full recovery from his injuries, but the bullet that struck Douglas Romero nicked his sciatic nerve causing partial numbness below his knee. He would never run competitively again.Today neither man is satisfied with the official investigation into April 11 th, and both men belong to different organizations fighting for justice.