The heartbreaking story of a Venezuelan baby who died in Chile waiting for a hospital bed

An immigrant family grieves after a respiratory virus outbreak claimed their little girl’s life

Los padres de Dana Parra Sánchez, una bebé que murió por virus respiratorios en Quilpué
José Luis Parra, Yessenia Sánchez and their son, with a photo of Dana in Quilpué, Chile, on June 14, 2023.Cristobal Venegas
Antonia Laborde

Barely a week after his two-month-old daughter Dana died, José Luis Parra stumbled across some news that shook him to the core. Another baby had succumbed to the same respiratory virus that had killed Dana as she waited in an overburdened hospital for a transfer to a pediatric intensive care unit. Dana had tragically passed away under seemingly preventable circumstances in Quilpué, Chile, near the port city of Valparaiso. The Parras, a Venezuelan family, had only recently arrived in Chile when tragedy struck. The similarities between the two cases were uncanny and convinced the Parras that it wasn’t normal to wait so long for a hospital transfer. Just when everything was finally ready for the baby’s move, she succumbed to a second cardiac arrest.

EL PAÍS met Parra and his wife, Yessenia Sánchez, one evening after he returned home from a construction job two hours away by bus. “Nothing is going to give us back our daughter,” said Parra, “but we want to tell her story so other children don’t die from a lack of hospital beds.” Yessenia told us, “At first I didn’t know it was a case of neglect and I didn’t know about this [syncytial] virus. I just thought her little body gave out. Now I think she could have been saved.” Martín, their four-year-old son, plays nearby in the modest home, decorated only by his drawings that still include Dana.

Dana Parra's brother, Martín, plays with a tablet near the drawings he made for his sister.
Dana Parra's brother, Martín, plays with a tablet near the drawings he made for his sister.Cristobal Venegas

In the first week of June, four infants lost their lives to respiratory viruses, including Dana, bringing the total number of infant fatalities to six. Criticism of how one of the largest respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) outbreaks in Chile was managed prompted the resignation of Fernando Araos, who served as the undersecretary of Health Care Networks in the Ministry of Health. On June 12, President Gabriel Boric appointed a person whose sole task is to ensure the availability of critical care beds. Boric also announced a remarkable 58.9% increase in pediatric hospital beds across the country’s integrated healthcare system, which includes public and private institutions.

After Dana’s death, her parents began questioning the decision they made three months earlier. The couple hails from a modest neighborhood in Valencia (northern Venezuela), and are the first university graduates in their families. They decided to leave their homeland during the severe food shortages of 2017. To raise money for a ticket to Peru, Yessenia sold the gold ring given by her mother for graduating from college. José Luis, who lost his parents when he was only 14, stayed behind a few more months to care for the beloved grandmother who raised him. By the end of the year, the couple was reunited in Lima and decided to have a baby. “I was 30 years old, and we had been together for seven years. I didn’t want to wait any longer, but it was a very tough year,” said Yessenia.

José Luis took to the streets to sell arepas, empanadas and coffee. He tells us about those days in words that reflect his higher education. “My feet were cracked from so much walking. The sun was so strong it felt like a rope around your neck pulling you to the sky. Terrible. The heat waves made the streets all blurry.” Once they got their immigration documents in order, both found good jobs. Yessenia quit when Martín was born, while José Luís’ relational skills served him well at his sales job with a telecommunications company. While most of his coworkers would launch straight into their sales pitches, José Luís liked to spend time getting to know potential customers. By the end of the conversation, they always said yes.

José Luis Parra and Yessenia Sánchez tell the story of their infant daughter’s death.
José Luis Parra and Yessenia Sánchez tell the story of their infant daughter’s death.Cristobal Venegas

José Luís did so well that he was earning $300 a week in commissions in addition to his base salary. “But then they changed the rules and started deducting all sorts of things from my pay,” he said. He quit angrily, and the couple set up a street kiosk to sell mobile phone products. In 2022, Yessenia found out she was pregnant again. “I wanted to have my daughter in Chile, because I knew things were better there. I had no problems in the hospital when Martín was born, but many of my friends did,” she said. They learned from a Facebook group of Venezuelans in Chile that getting an entry visa was no longer easy, but salaries were better than in Peru, a country where they never felt like they fit in.

Yessenia’s sister who lived in Quilpué told them that Martín would get residency because he was a minor and the baby would automatically have Chilean nationality at birth. But the two parents would be irregular migrants. “The important thing was the children,” said Yessenia. So they went to Tacna, a Peruvian city on the border with Chile, intending to cross over into Arica without documents. Yessenia was eight months pregnant by then. They told Martín they were going on an adventure and would have to do a lot of walking. They tried to cross four times in two weeks, but the Chilean border officials caught them every time. They finally made it through by paying a few hundred dollars.

The family rented a place in Quilpué with a single bedroom, small living room and kitchen. Dana was born at 36 weeks and immediately began suffering from mucus build-up in the lungs, a condition that worsened when she was diagnosed with rhinopharyngitis. Two days after being admitted to the hospital, her health took a sharp downturn. She stopped crying every time her sinuses were cleared, and her coughing became listless. She no longer wanted to breastfeed. The doctors told the family that Dana would be transferred to an ICU, but 12 hours later, nothing had happened. Paramedics finally arrived to transport Dana to the ICU, but left when they learned no bed was available.

Martín has been struggling since the loss of his sister. His school noticed and assigned a child psychologist to counsel him. Martín is much more fidgety now and talks about his sister often. His parents recently found him hiding in the living room, attempting a magic trick to bring Dana back.

Neighbors took up a collection that helped the family pay for Dana’s $440 funeral at San Carlos Borromeo parish cemetery. The Parras are in touch with other parents who have lost babies to the virus, and buried their little ones in grassy cemeteries. That’s what Yessenia and José Luís wanted, but it cost $1,200, more than they could afford. No government officials came to Dana’s burial.

Martín's drawings for his sister.
Martín's drawings for his sister.Cristobal Venegas

Since their baby’s death, the Parras have been approached by several legislators of different political stripes. The family says only Hotuiti Teao, a center-right congressman elected as an independent, has done something on their behalf. Teao organized a press conference for the family and urged them to request a meeting with Health Minister Ximena Aguilera. On June 14, the Parras and other families who lost babies met with Aguilera.

Irritated that politicians just “call us, make us tell the whole story again and leave,” the Parras are considering a lawyer’s offer to represent them in a lawsuit against the hospital and others for “culpable homicide.” The lawyer would only get paid if they win and receive financial compensation. Health Minister Aguilera said a congressional investigation would conclude in two weeks and the families would be given access to the report.

On June 15, a representative from the Ministry of Health called them to confirm their agreement with Minister Aguilera. Yessenia told him that they didn’t have any agreement, but would like to speed up the Chilean residency permit process. The couple is on an emotional roller coaster and now regret leaving Peru. They’ve thought about returning to Venezuela and even discussed starting over in the United States or Canada. But they simply can’t bear the thought of leaving Dana behind.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS