Family of doctors forge legacy reaching from RGV to White House

The life savers

From left, Dr. Norman Ramirez, Dr. Mario Luis Ramirez and Dr. Mario E. Ramirez pose for a family portrait. (Courtesy photo)

For 70 years now, three generations of doctors have worked tirelessly to improve their communities, leaving their indelible marks wherever they go.

Originally from Starr County, the Ramirez family has amassed a long list of accomplishments — so long, it’s almost impossible to list them all.

Their journey began more than seven decades ago in what used to be a small agricultural and ranching community. Grandfather, father and son would eventually become doctors and their dedication to public service would put them on a path to the White House and beyond.

Together, they created medical institutions, improved access to care, treated wounded troops on the frontlines in Afghanistan and curbed the spread of dangerous illnesses, such as Ebola, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome).

Dr. Mario E. Ramirez at the Roma hospital in an undated photo. (Courtesy photo)

MARIO E. RAMIREZ

The late Dr. Mario E. Ramirez pioneered a new era of health care for South Texas, beginning in 1950, when he opened the first family practice in Starr County in Roma.

“He was a whirlwind,” his son, Dr. Norman Ramirez, said last week. “You know, he went to college at 16 years old, like I did. So he was very driven, and he went to medical school without even graduating college.”

Mario E. Ramirez enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and it gave him an opportunity to accelerate his career, his son said Wednesday. Afterward, he and his wife, Sarah Ramirez, a nurse, returned to Starr County and together opened the first hospital there: the Manuel Ramirez Memorial Clinic and Hospital.

“And then when the county outgrew the hospital, he became county judge … and he got funding to open a hospital in Rio Grande City — and that’s still the Starr County Memorial Hospital right now,” Norman Ramirez said about his dad.

Mario E. Ramirez practiced medicine for many years, delivering a number of children and often working late nights.

“He wouldn’t get home till 10 or 11 every night, and we used to do house calls,” his son recalled. “I’d go with him when I was in high school. I’d drive him. So, 2 in the morning, if somebody would call, we’d drive out to the ranch and see people.”

Norman Ramirez’s own son, Dr. Mario Luis Ramirez, also recalled growing up seeing his grandfather at work.

“My biggest memories of my grandfather were going to visit him at their house and they had, you know, horses walking around in the back and chickens, and then realizing that a lot of that stuff was just the way that people paid for medical services — or didn’t pay for medical services — and that was OK,” he said. “He was really somebody who believed in the power of medicine to create better communities. And, you know, I think he gave his entire life to South Texas.”

Mario E. Ramirez received a number of accolades and recognition for his work, including from former U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

“He was very involved,” his son said. “He was Family Doctor of the Year and we got to go to the White House and meet the president.”

Mario E. Ramirez also served as a University of Texas Reagent and president of the Texas Medical Association, to name a few figurehead posts he held before his death May 2017.

Dr. Norman Ramirez, chief medical officer and physician executive (Heart and Vascular Institute at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance on Wednesday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

NORMAN RAMIREZ

Like his father, Dr. Norman Ramirez has dedicated a large part of his life to serving the Rio Grande Valley, namely by being the first to offer a number of innovative heart procedures, which he continues to pioneer today as chief medical officer at the Structural Heart, Valve and Endovascular Institute at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg.

Norman Ramirez left the Valley at the age of 16 in search of the most specialized training available.

“So I never thought I would come back here,” he said Wednesday. “But it’s interesting how it draws you back, right?”

After attending Yale University, he graduated from Stanford University Medical School, continued his cardiology training at Duke University and worked at the Mayo Clinic for about two years, before returning to South Texas, where he’s practiced for more than three decades and completed more than 30,000 procedures.

“So, you know, part of the reason I came back was I kind of wanted to be a pioneer, too — a little bit like my dad,” he said Wednesday. “And I’ve tried to bring in new and innovative things to the Valley all through these 31 years that I’ve been practicing.”

And true to his word, he became the first physician to implant the first implantable defibrillator in the Valley, the first to place a coronary stent and the first to perform a coronary atherectomy, among other accomplishments.

“He loves his patients,” his son, Dr. Mario Luis Ramirez said. “He still, to this day, gets excited about going to the office and seeing people who he’s had relationships with for 30 and 40 years now.”

Norman Ramirez is so focused on innovation, that he retired from his cardiology practice a few months ago to take on very complicated heart procedures that only he performs south of San Antonio, including the Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement, known for its syllables as TAVR, the Transcatheter Mitral Valve Repair, otherwise known as the MitraClip Procedure, and the Left Atrial Appendage Closure, better known as the WATCHMAN implant.

These minimally invasive procedures often eliminate the need for open heart surgery, reduce device-related complications and drive down the costs for care. They also dramatically improve patients’ lives and allow for faster recoveries.

“I think he is really fortunate to be very skilled at what he does, and I think he tries to use that to really improve people’s lives,” his son said. “It’s rare in this world that we all get some talents or some skills that we’re able to use, but it’s a really special thing when you get to use that to hopefully make the world a better place — to be a little cliche.

“But I think he’s been able to do that.”

Norman Ramirez said he’s happy to be able to offer those services. The Valley has a high incidence of diabetes, which can lead to coronary disease, he said. So he encourages his patients to eat healthy and maintain an active lifestyle.

“I try to practice what I preach. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years and I’ve run like 10 marathons,” he said.

And he does it all with one kidney. The other, he previously donated to a brother.

Dr. Norman Ramirez visits with a patient Wednesday at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

MARIO LUIS RAMIREZ

Dr. Mario Luis Ramirez, like his father, wanted to chart his own path.

So, like the men before him, he packed his bags after graduating from McAllen Memorial High School and headed to Stanford, then Harvard, where he eventually graduated from both the medical school and the public policy school.

Much of his career, however, was impacted by 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed, he said. It’s what convinced him to leave med school for a while to pursue a public policy degree, which enabled him to work closely with the then newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Upon finishing his studies, he headed to Nashville to complete his residency. Once done, he volunteered to teach police officers from the SWAT and bomb units how to treat injuries during emergencies.

Still, like his grandfather, he felt a higher calling, Mario Luis Ramirez said. So when he received a flyer in the mail from the U.S. Air Force, he decided to meet with a recruiter.

“(I told him) ‘I really want to do something that I can’t do in civilian medicine.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll find something for you to do,’” the youngest Ramirez physician recalled Thursday.

He was stationed at Andrews Air Force for about a year before he was asked to lead a critical care air evacuation team, basically flying injured troops out of Afghanistan and into Germany.

“I thought, ‘This is great. This is exactly what I want. I said that I want to get out there and really do the thing, and this will be the chance to do it,’” he said. “And it was. It was a great deployment.”

But it was also grueling work.

“The way that these aircrafts were set up, it was one doctor, one nurse and one respiratory therapist. And you can have up to seven patients who were on ventilators, who are badly burned, who’ve had multiple amputations,” he said. “It’s the hardest medicine that I think you can practice, as a solo person, on a 10-hour flight.”

Mario Luis Ramirez accompanied 50 men and women with varying degrees of injuries and care. Half did not survive.

“It left a huge impression on me,” he said, later adding, “It was both great professionally, in terms of becoming a better doctor, but also a chance to sort of really see what kind of sacrifice people make for the country. So when I came back I stayed on for another year of active duty and I really enjoyed my time in the Air Force.”

Afterward, he was accepted into the highly coveted and prestigious White House Fellows program.

“They take about 14 or 15 people every year, and the idea is that they chose people who are kind of in this middle point of their career and they give them exposure at a really high level of how the government works. And you get lots of one-on-one advice and you sort of have an all-access pass to the federal government, including the intelligence agencies, the defense department. You get a high level of clearance, you get to go anywhere and hear any conversation that you want,” he said. “And the idea is that when it’s over, you go back to your community and then you use the lessons you learned to hopefully make your community a better place.”

For Mario Luis Ramirez, that meant working as a special assistant to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who at the time was serving as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

During his time there, the youngest Ramirez physician had the opportunity to create a response effort to the Ebola outbreak, and soon after he was asked to serve as acting director for the Office of Pandemic and Emerging Threats for the Obama Administration.

“And then I was sort of working that office and then we had the SARS outbreak in South Korea and then a MERS outbreak in the Middle East. And all of these incidentally happened to be coronavirus outbreaks,” he said. “So my job essentially was to do international coordination with the WHO (World Health Organization) and other international bodies on behalf of HHS. So it’s a pretty interesting job.”

Today, Mario Luis Ramirez is a full-time emergency room physician, treating patients with COVID-19, and leads a startup company that seeks to create opportunities for the economically disadvantaged.

And on Monday, his company, Opportunity Labs, launched a new initiative called Return to School Roadmap, which is a step-by-step guidance on how to reopen schools in the Fall and get kids back to school in the setting of a pandemic.