Love in the Time of Leprosy

The life after death of José and Magdalena Ramirez

Everybody thought college would be a breeze for José Ramirez. A starter on his high school football team, he was voted most popular in his senior class of 1966, and he had a pretty girlfriend named Magdalena Santos, who was voted second-most popular in her class. In addition to his athletic and social prowess, he was no slouch in the classroom either. He won a scholarship to Laredo Junior College, as did Magdalena.

Their parents had come up far in the world, but Magdalena and José wanted to go them one better by getting an education and then seeing what they could do from there.

The only worry was that back when he was a tenth grader, José started to get sick. At first it seemed a mere nuisance, if a strange one. Beginning in his sophomore year, odd little lesions that resembled pimples started appearing on his legs and hands. He lost sensation in his forearms and fingers, so much so that he could soon, much to the astonishment of his brothers and sisters, sink a pin deep into his flesh without flinching. As high school progressed, the sores started popping up on his back. A dermatologist diagnosed them as "grease balls" and lanced them free of charge, but the sores returned.

José Ramirez, suffering here from pains and sores, and Magdalena Santos were high school sweethearts.
Courtesy of José Ramirez
José Ramirez, suffering here from pains and sores, and Magdalena Santos were high school sweethearts.
After doctors finally figured out José had leprosy, he was sent to Carville in Louisiana. Told he'd probably spend six months there, José ultimately stayed in Carville eight years.
Gleason Photography
After doctors finally figured out José had leprosy, he was sent to Carville in Louisiana. Told he'd probably spend six months there, José ultimately stayed in Carville eight years.

Next, a surgeon diagnosed varicose veins and operated, but that didn't help either. The sores returned, the numbness spread and, soon after, José's upper extremities started to ache fiercely. And then along came frequent high fevers and bouts of congestion. Getting out of bed was an agony.

By the time José got to Laredo Junior College with Magdalena, he was having real trouble keeping up with the work. Having exhausted all the medical resources in Laredo, José's parents turned to curanderismo — Mexican folk healing. The first healer they visited, in February of 1967, was a plump young woman across the bridge in Nuevo Laredo. She diagnosed José as suffering the physical manifestations of a broken heart, or perhaps a curse from an ex-girlfriend. That's funny, José thought to himself; he didn't feel heartbroken. The breakup the healer referred to happened way back in 1963, when he was 15 years old, and he had all but forgotten the girl. She prescribed that he pray in the nude while she massaged his body to transfer the curse. That cure didn't take.

Next came a yerbero — an herbalist — whose favorite herb was apparently leather, as his treatment consisted of savagely thrashing José's sore-crusted back with his belt. That therapy ended abruptly when José's father, a Laredo cop, pulled out his chrome .38 and declared the proceedings at an end.

After a subsequent unsuccessful visit to a San Antonio dermatologist, the Ramirez family took the advice of a close friend and in December of 1967, they piled into the family's '64 Impala and headed for the north Mexican metropolis of Monterrey, high in the Sierra Madres. There, they would take José to visit one of Mexico's most revered and renowned curanderos. The curandero lived on the outskirts of town in a hut with a palm-frond roof. His yard was a riot of herbs.

After little more than a glance at José's sores, the wizened curandero made his cryptic diagnosis: "This disease is found in the Bible." He refused all payment, said José needed to see a specialist with expertise in diseases of the Bible, and handed over a prescription for prednisone, which instantly made José feel miraculously recovered, if only for a few hours.

By February of 1968, José was in really bad shape. He could no longer get out of bed, much less go to school, and he had lost faith in all doctors. His sister Raquel at last persuaded him to give medicine one last chance, and José agreed to be admitted to Laredo's Mercy Hospital. There, at last, after sending a biopsy to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, a team of doctors figured out what was wrong with José Ramirez. A doctor came all the way down from Austin to break the earth-shattering news: José had leprosy.

The first thing José felt was relief; at least he knew what was wrong. While José was still processing the diagnosis, the Austin doctor added that, like 90 percent of all newly diagnosed Texan leprosy patients, for the time being, his new home would be Carville, which José first misheard as Kerrville. He knew that town — he had once competed there on the gridiron. No, the doctor explained, Carville was in Louisiana, and it was a special place for people with leprosy. He assured José that he would probably be back in Laredo in six months and that he would probably be able to continue his education in Louisiana.

But how would José get there? He was in bad shape; there was no way he could sit up for the entire 750-mile, pre-Interstate drive to Louisiana. He needed to go in an ambulance. Back then, funeral directors also operated ambulance services. The undertaker said he couldn't spare an ambulance.

"Ambulances are for the living," he explained. As for José, he could go in a hearse.
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