Former Regent, South Texas medical pioneer Mario Ramirez, M.D., dies

Mario E. Ramirez, M.D.

Mario E. Ramirez, M.D., a passionate advocate for health care in the Rio Grande Valley and a seminal figure in the history of medicine in Texas, died May 22. He was 91.

Drs. Mario Ramirez (left) and Francisco Cigarroa, on Dr. Ramirez’s retirement in 2007.

Dr. Ramirez served on the UT System Board of Regents from 1989 to 1995 and was vice president for South Texas programs at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio from 1995 to 2007.

UT Health San Antonio President William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, said Dr. Ramirez was “among the most loved people in medicine and education in our state.”

“His unwavering advocacy for students to have opportunity leaves an indelible legacy of commitment and hope,” Dr. Henrich added.

A native of Roma in Starr County, Dr. Ramirez in 1950 opened the first family practice in Roma. He remained there until 1975 when he moved his office to nearby Rio Grande City. He established the first hospital in the county at Roma in 1958, and later, as Starr County judge, helped lead the effort to build Starr County Memorial Hospital, which opened in Rio Grande City in 1975.

In addition to his practice, Dr. Ramirez was active in numerous state and national organizations, always advocating for health care in the Valley. He was a diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

At various times, Dr. Ramirez served as a preceptor for students from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Baylor College of Medicine, Northwestern University School of Medicine and Michigan State College of Medicine.

Dr. Ramirez poses with students at the Dr. Mario E. Ramirez Elementary School in Rio Grande City.

Throughout his career, Dr. Ramirez had a special interest in matters related to the delivery of medical care for the disadvantaged. His dedication resulted in major recognitions, including the Distinguished Service Award from the Texas Academy of General Practice and the Texas Medical Association, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from The University of Texas, Outstanding Leadership Award from the Texas Academy of Family Practice, and the Bicentennial Dr. Benjamin Rush Award for citizenship and community service from the American Medical Association.

Mario E. Ramirez, M.D., and wife, Sarah.

In 1978, he received the “Family Doctor of the Year” Award from the American Academy of Family Physicians and was honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter.

Also on the national scene, Dr. Ramirez served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Health Professions; the National Health Advisory Council; and was appointed in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan as a regent on the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

In 1995 he became vice president for South Texas/border initiatives for  the Health Science Center. In that role, he established and nurtured the Med/Ed Program, which inspired thousands of students in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Laredo with the message that college and health science careers are for attainable.

Upon Dr. Ramirez’s retirement in 2007, Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., then president of the Health Science Center at San Antonio, paid tribute to the doctor he considered a mentor. Dr. Ramirez’s contributions to the advancement of medical education in South Texas, Dr. Cigarroa said, made him “one of the greatest heroes that Texas has produced.”

“Mario Ramirez has focused his life on the care of patients,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “Whether one could pay or whether one had no means to pay, that was irrelevant.”

Dr. Cigarroa, a renowned pediatric heart surgeon, at age 15 observed his first surgery at Dr. Ramirez’s side.

Regarding Dr. Ramirez’ work with students in the Med/Ed Program, Dr. Cigarroa said, “He saw firsthand the intellectual brilliance and potential that the students along the border truly have. Much of the diversity we are now experiencing in the schools of medicine across the state of Texas, and even beyond, is the result of the work of Mario Ramirez.”

Rosary and visitation are from 6 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, May 24, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 1:30 p.m., Thursday, May 25, at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in McAllen, with burial to follow at Roselawn Cemetery in McAllen.

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