Even the Pope Has Prayed to Venezuela’s Beloved ‘Doctor of the Poor’
ISNOTÚ, Venezuela – Worshipers began to arrive before dawn, figures emerging from thick fog, rocked by birdsong and church bells.
They had traveled winding mountain roads, obstructed by mudslide debris and checkpoints guarded by soldiers, to pay homage to the statue of a doctor with outstretched hand. Many had traveled on foot due to widespread gasoline shortages.
Deivis Vásquez arrived, introduced his only son to the doctor’s statue and cried, overwhelmed with emotion that his boy was well enough to show his gratitude in person.
Months earlier, Mr Vásquez had come to this very place in the heart of the Andean foothills when his 14-year-old son Deivi Rafael was in a coma on life support in the pediatric intensive care unit of a government. hospital.
A motorcycle accident had caused severe head trauma and the boy’s medical team did not expect him to survive. If he defied the odds and lived, he faced a 95% chance of permanent brain damage.
“There was virtually nothing I could do,” said its neurosurgeon, Dr Edgar Altuve. “If I had operated, it would have killed him. “
Terrified that his son would die, Mr. Vásquez drove his van to the small town of Isnotú to pray in front of the large white marble statue of Dr. José Gregorio Hernández, known throughout the country as the “Doctor of the poor ”from Venezuela.
For decades Venezuelans like him have flocked to Isnotú to implore Dr. Hernández to cure them or their loved ones.
When the devotees believe that a cure is attributed to the intervention of the doctor, they present his statue with metal plaques to show their thanks. A few thousand of these plaques – bearing messages describing successful operations and miracles – have been presented to the shrine since its founding in 1960. There is now little room for more.
Born in Isnotú in 1864, Dr Hernández studied medicine in Paris. Later, the Venezuelan government asked him to help modernize the country’s healthcare as a teacher and researcher.
His reputation for donating medicine and free care to the most vulnerable patients of Caracas, the capital, has immortalized him in Venezuelan folklore.
He died in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic, fatally hit by a car while crossing the street. He had just left a pharmacy to bring medicine to an elderly woman.
The image of Dr Hernández – a mustached man in a black suit, white blouse and bowler hat – is emblematic of Venezuelan culture and appeals to the entire political spectrum.
Venezuelans who have lost faith in both the Maduro administration and the political opposition may agree that Dr Hernández can provide for their central need: healthcare, said Daniel Esparza, a doctoral student at Columbia University specializing in in the role of religion in contemporary Venezuela. .
“He is a civilian who actually served other civilians, and that seems to be an ideal shared by both sides,” Esparza said. “We are orphans when it comes to role models – that’s when José Gregorio steps in.”
Local Catholic leaders began asking the Vatican in 1949 to put Dr. Hernández on the path to holiness. During decades of waiting for the Vatican to beatify the doctor, many Venezuelans lit candles in his name and placed pictures of him on their personal altars. For them he was already a saint.
Widespread veneration for the doctor is evident in Caracas, where red cinder block barracks line the hills surrounding the Dr. José Gregorio Hernández West General Hospital in Catia, a working-class neighborhood.
Amid the pandemic and the eighth year of a crippling humanitarian and economic crisis characterized by collapsed public hospitals and widespread drug shortages, patients at the hospital regularly pray to the doctor.
The same is true for many of its health care workers.
“It’s very difficult, because sometimes you have to do more than is humanly possible,” said Dr Laura de La Rosa, who treats Covid-19 patients in hospital. “There comes a time when you say, ‘Listen to José Gregorio, this is all we earthly physicians can give – you are helping us from above and we will see how much we can continue to give to this patient together. “
In the pediatric ward, Gabriel Tomoche, 11, had been waiting for weeks for a scan that doctors needed to diagnose a growing mass on his liver. Family members placed wet washcloths on her forehead and stomach, trying to break her high fever. They then helped him move to an altar, adorned with handwritten children’s notes addressed to Dr Hernández.
“Help me get out of here soon,” Gabriel prayed. “I want to go home.”
In the José Gregorio Hernández neighborhood of Cotiza, another neighborhood in Caracas, young men playing basketball rolled up their sleeves and pant legs to show the doctor’s tattoos.
Greymer Ricaurte, 32, graphic designer and rap musician, tattooed Dr Hernandez’s face on his leg and said he prayed to it after being shot six times while being robbed. One of the bullets punctured his lung and he almost died. He still regularly lights candles for Dr Hernández, claiming the doctor helped him survive.
Lucy Monasterios, 61, lives in the neighborhood and works as a nurse at a public women’s clinic. She said that 38 years ago, after a month of ineffective treatment for a severe case of peritonitis, a doctor resembling Dr José Gregorio Hernández walked into her hospital room and said, “Be calm, you will. will feel better tomorrow. He touched her forehead and her stomach, she said, then left.
The hospital said none of its doctors visited him at the time. But she is convinced that Dr Hernández did it.
Soon after, Ms Monasterios said her health started to improve.
In 1986, the Vatican declared Dr. Hernández “venerable”, a necessary step on the path to holiness.
A decade later, exasperated Venezuelans presented Pope John Paul II with a petition signed by five million people, urging him to hasten the beatification process. But it wasn’t until last summer, a century after his death, that Pope Francis finally declared Dr Hernández qualified.
The miracle the Vatican accepted for the beatification was the recovery of Yaxury Solórzano Ortega, a 10-year-old girl who was shot in the head and defied medical prognosis when she made a full recovery after her mother prayed to Dr Hernández.
Yaxury attended the official beatification ceremony this spring.
Pope Francis was not present but sent a video message describing Dr Hernández as “a model of holiness committed to the defense of life”.
The Pope – an Argentinian and the first Pope in Latin America – said he had never met a Venezuelan “who, in the middle of the conversation, did not finally say to me: ‘When will Gregorio be? beatified? ‘ They carried it in their souls.
The Pope added: “I pray to Blessed José Gregorio Hernández for all of you. “
While the Vatican has not classified Deivi Rafael’s recovery as a miracle, the Vásquez family and the priests of Isnotú believe it was.
He came out of his coma and several weeks of rehabilitation with his cognitive and motor skills as strong as before. His doctors were stunned.
“He gave me back my life,” Deivi Rafael said solemnly of Dr Hernández. “We must be grateful to him because by curing me he healed a lot of them. And he will continue to heal.
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