My sister, who studied medicine, would always talk about the San Juan de Dios. She was very enthusiastic about doing her internship there, but when she was in the middle of her degree the hospital shut down. My grandmother had also worked there as a nurse decades ago.
Because of this family history I had a notion of how important the hospital was and when I discovered it in this state two years ago, it was a devastating blow. It isn't a medical centre in the middle of the jungle, but one located within the heart of the city and one that operated since before the country's independence.
All the contributions that Colombia has made to world medicine have come from the San Juan. Popular belief used to be that if you died at the San Juan de Dios, you would go directly to heaven. Because of this, people would flock there to die and many of them would include it in their wills. The Hacienda El Salitre, historically one of Bogota's largest estates, was bequeathed to the San Juan. The land where the National University, the Simón Bolívar metropolitan park, the US Embassy and the entire Ciudad Salitre neighbourhood stand today all belonged to this estate. However, the proceeds from these sales were administered by other government entities and never allocated to the hospital.
"Many former employees lost their houses and moved into the hospital"
Once the hospital officially shut down in 2001, a group of employees decided to keep it in operation. They organised free health brigades and kept the San Juan functioning in a very precarious way for almost six years, without electricity or running water. As time passed, their hopes to see it reopen became dimmer and dimmer. Many of them lost their houses and moved into the hospital. They all lost their health insurance and several of them have been straddled with debt as their family members became ill.
What strikes me most about the San Juan is that it could be such a lovely place to live in. It is right in the heart of the city, and most of its buildings were architectural landmarks at some point. It is dotted with parks and playgrounds. Ironically, the state in which it is right now and the appalling conditions in which these families live make it quite the opposite of lovely.
To this day none of the hospital’s former employees have been officially fired, nor have they received severance pay. They are there, waiting.