Puzzles, stuffed animals and drawings adorn the open casket of 11-year-old Erick Altuve during his wake inside his home in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Erick died while he was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. The deaths of several Venezuelan children with cancer who were hoping for bone marrow transplants have ignited a bitter dispute between the government and opponents over who is to blame. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

A wake for a Venezuelan boy, and a nation's anguish

May 28, 2019 - 4:52 pm

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The family of an 11-year-old Venezuelan boy who died of cancer while waiting for a bone marrow transplant held an open-casket wake on Tuesday, giving visitors a chance to see him for the last time as they wondered whether the death could have been avoided.

Erick Altuve lay in an eggshell white coffin with gold-colored trimming. Toys lay on the glass top, framing his face: a couple of stuffed penguins, a tiny flatbed truck, drawing pencils. There were two plastic bottles of the vanilla and chocolate milkshakes he used to drink to try to build strength.

Behind him were a kite with his name on it and a wooden crucifix.

"Sharing with him was the best," said the boy's tearful father, Gilberto Altuve. "It's hard to know he's not here anymore."

The intimate occasion in the Caracas slum of Petare was also part of a nation's anguish over the humanitarian disaster that has gutted the ability of Venezuela's health system to adequately treat the sick. Erick Altuve was among several cancer-stricken children whose deaths have ignited a bitter dispute between the government and opponents over who is to blame.

Protesters gathered this week outside the J. M. de los Ríos pediatric hospital after the reported deaths there of Erick and three other children on a waiting list for bone marrow transplants. Many said President Nicolás Maduro's government is responsible for deteriorating medical care in Venezuela, which is also in the grip of hyperinflation as well as food, power and fuel shortages.

But the Venezuelan government alleges U.S. sanctions, aimed at forcing Maduro from power, froze money that could have been used to send the children to Italy for bone marrow transplants. Funds for such operations were previously sent through Venezuela's state oil company, which has been targeted by those sanctions, according to Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.

There are continuing international efforts to help Venezuelan children with cancer. The Vatican's Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital announced on May 23 that four Venezuelan children, aged 10 to 17, had arrived for oncological treatments with help from the international Red Cross.

Venezuela does not have the capacity for bone marrow transplants, complex operations in which a patient's immune system is wiped out to reduce chances of rejection. A period of waiting then follows to allow the transplant to work and for the immune system to be essentially reset, meaning the patient is susceptible to infections or bacteria in the interim and must be carefully monitored.

Erick Altuve died on Sunday at the J. M. de los Ríos hospital, where relatives of the sick and medical staff say medication and decent nutrition are lacking. There are signs of decay on entering the building. Lighting is poor and some seats are damaged.

In the hospital Tuesday, Edenny Martínez, one of two dozen children there who still hope for a bone marrow transplant, sat as she received a blood transfusion. The 15-year-old girl has a blood disorder.

"Now that she is bigger, the disease has advanced more. She feels more discomfort. That is our fear, that one of these days she might not wake up," said her mother, Evelline Fernández.

"Sometimes she says 'I'm tired of all this, mom,'" said Fernández, a low-paid nurse who can't afford treatment for her daughter. "But I tell her no, that we should not get tired, that at the end of the road there must be a light, that someone is going to help us."

In political developments, the European Union increased its push for a new presidential election in Venezuela as a way out of the crisis, appointing a former international banker and seasoned diplomat as the bloc's special envoy for the country. Enrique Iglesias is a former Uruguayan foreign minister.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' main disarmament body walked out of a Geneva session to protest that Venezuela had taken the chair. The move by Robert Wood came after Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Valero began hosting the session; Valero described Wood's action as "ridiculous."

In his hillside home in Petare, Gilberto Altuve said he felt anger and helplessless at the "ignorance" that he believes contributed to his son's death, but didn't blame any political faction. He remembered how he sometimes left the hospital and cried, unable to bear watching his son struggle to breathe.

"I would come back and dry my tears as I am doing right now, and I would go back in the hospital with my head up," said Altuve, recalling how his son urged his parents to be calm.

Voice wavering, the father repeated some of Erick's last words.

"'I know that I might die,'" Erick had told his father. But, the boy said, "'I want to fight. I want to fight.'"


Associated Press journalist Camille Rodriguez Montilla contributed to this report.

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