Hospital resident Edwin Chaves in a surgery room for the burnt and infected. Photo by Nicolás Van Hemelryck
It was once hailed as one of the most important hospitals in Latin America. The world's first vaccine for malaria, the first valve to treat hydrocephalus, and the first kangaroo mother care program to prevent the death of premature newborns were all developed at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Bogota. Yet today, this massive hospital complex in the centre of Colombia's capital lies in ruins, inhabited by former employees whose salaries were never paid when it shut down 11 years ago.
The San Juan de Dios Hospital was a public hospital founded in 1723 on orders from King Philip V of Spain. It was home to the country's first university hospital, and its first surgery was performed there.
However, it wasn't financially sustainable. After many years of accumulating debt, in 1999 the hospital stopped paying its employees. A group of nurses and other technical staff decided to keep running it on their own until 2003. Unable to face their own mortgages and debts, many of them moved into the sprawling complex located in Bogota's downtown, only six blocks away from the presidential palace. Today around 60 families – about 300 people – still live within the San Juan's walls, in places ranging from the surgery and incubator rooms to the psychiatric ward.
The hospital's current debt, for which the national government is responsible, is estimated at 929 million euros. Bogota's recently elected mayor, Gustavo Petro, pledged during his campaign to reopen the hospital as part of his plan to renovate the city centre. Even though neither the hospital's debt or its facilities fall inside the city's jurisdiction, he has been the first public officer in over a decade to seriously discuss the possibility of re-opening it it.
All photos by our Observer Nicolás Van Hemelryck. See more here.
View of the hospital complex.
Hospital residents Rigoberto, Edelmira and Marlén with visitors, inside the San Lucas Pavilion for the burnt and infected.

An abandoned ambulance.
Hospital resident Gustavo Segura, standing among incubators at the hospital's Maternity Center.
Brothers Victor and Edwin Chaves, in the San Lucas Pavilion for the burnt and infected.
Main entrance to one of the older buildings.
An elderly resident gets her hair cut in the yard of the mental health ward.

“To this day none of the hospital’s former employees have been officially fired, nor have they received severance pay. They are there, waiting”

Nicolás Van Hemelryck is an architect and photographer who has dedicated his free time during the past two years to documenting the state of the San Juan de Dios Hospital.
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.
Post written with freelance journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.