Small Town, Big Heart

Small Town, Big Heart

By Leslie Terrell

Dr. Mario Ramirez is part of UT Health Science ­Center history. As a medical student in the 1950s, he fondly recalls Ma Hamilton’s boarding house on South Pauline, a place where you could dance to a nickelodeon and drink a beer. Ramirez is also a Texan, and, as he likes to say, “from the best of both worlds: orange and white UTHSC in Memphis and orange and white UTHSC in Austin, Texas, where the T stands for Texas.” Now 81 years old, he remembers his journey away from—and back to—his Texas home. It was a journey of inspiration and love.

Born in 1926, Ramirez grew up in Roma—population 1,000—a poor West Texas town in Starr County on the Rio Grande. He’s often asked what inspired him to become a physician and return home to practice. “Physicians were extremely scarce in our community,” he says, “and it is possible that my mother planted the seed. I was also influenced by an uncle who had a drugstore and sometimes out of necessity acted as the town’s only physician. At the age of seven, my brother became violently ill. He was initially misdiagnosed as having tetanus and subsequently was found to have osteomyelitis. Septicemia and a renal shutdown followed, and he died shortly thereafter. This undoubtedly reinforced my desire to study medicine.”

Graduating from high school at age 16, Ramirez enrolled at the University of Texas—Austin, and then came to Tennessee, where he graduated from the UT College of Medicine in Memphis. While doing his internship at Shreveport Charity Hospital in Louisiana, he met a young nurse, Sarah Aycock, who became his wife in 1949. The couple moved back to Roma, where Ramirez began practice.

“We opened our office on April 21, 1950, exactly, to the day, ten years after my brother’s death,” he says. Roma still had the same population—about 1,000—as it did 100 years earlier. And the town was 98 percent Hispanic—a culture shock for the new Mrs. Ramirez.

For many years, Mario Ramirez was the only physician in town, making house calls and delivering babies in homes.

“My wife helped a lot. My dad used to help me sterilize instruments and gloves at home in their pressure cooker. Few families had a telephone, and communication from one rural area to another was difficult.” Eventually Ramirez rented an old house in Roma and set up an obstetrical clinic, furnished with used hospital beds and an old surgical table.

From 1955 to 1957, Ramirez served at a U.S. Air Force base hospital in Japan. He had found a physician to care for his Roma patients in his absence and returned to find a much larger practice than he had left. This in turn fueled the need for a larger hospital.

He negotiated with one of Roma’s founding families to buy and remodel an old building that left much to be desired. “Can you imagine literally carrying a two-­hundred-plus-pound lady in labor down a narrow, steep stairway to the X-ray room?” he laughs. As the practice grew, partners came and went, but Ramirez continued. The hospital, the only one in the county, also served counties to the west and north, but it lacked a modern operating room. “Reaccreditation of our hospital building by Medicare became more difficult with each visit,” he recalls.

At about that time the county judge resigned, and Ramirez was invited to replace him. “I realized that this would be my opportunity to build a new county hospital, and I accepted the position,” he says. As judge, he applied for and received financial approval, building a new hospital and recruiting more doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals.

Ramirez continued as judge for 9 years until 1969, when he ran for president of the Texas Medical Association. He was the first Hispanic ever to do so—and he won. On the eve of the election, he received a phone call saying he had been selected “Family Doctor of the Year” by the American Academy of Family Physicians and Good Housekeeping magazine. Active in the American Medical Association, Ramirez served as vice-president of its committee on healthcare of the poor. In 1985 he was appointed by President Reagan to serve as a regent of the Military Medical School in Bethesda, Maryland. He also served a 6-year term as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System.

In 1992 a routine exam diagnosed the dedicated physician with an aggressive cancer of the prostate, and 2 weeks later he underwent radical surgery. Unable to maintain his former pace, he retired from his practice in Starr County and moved to nearby McAllen, where he became vice-­president for South Texas Border Health Educational Initiatives. He’s proud of a program he implemented that has helped increase the number of young people studying to become medical professionals in what is still a medically underserved region.

Ramirez and his wife have five grown children—two doctors, two lawyers, and one teacher—and 16 grandchildren. Mario Ramirez’s list of honors and accomplishments is lengthy, but he fondly recalls his 43 years as a physician in Starr County.
“If I had to do it over again, I certainly would make the same decision. I hope that maybe, in a small way, I may have contributed toward making South Texas a little bit healthier and happier.

“To leave Roma was one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever made,” he says. “Practicing there was never a sacrifice. It was an honor. Even now, ten years after retiring from practice, when my wife and I go to Luby’s cafeteria at noon, we will run into some of our old patients from Starr County. It’s a time for besos, abrazos, y ­lágrimas [kisses, hugs, and tears].”