Tijuana's premiere bullfight surgeon, Jose Rodriguez

Every horn is different

Jose Rodriguez at downtown bullring:  “I've had setbacks, many setbacks."
  • Jose Rodriguez at downtown bullring: “I've had setbacks, many setbacks."
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

MANY PEOPLE LOVE BULLFIGHTING. BUT JOSE RODRIGUEZ OLIVAS'S llove of bullfighting is extraordinary. For almost forty years. Rodriguez has been Tijuana’s chief bullfight doctor, and in that role, he has studied the myriad ways in which enraged fighting bulls can rip apart the human body. These wounds sicken him. Rodriguez says the work has caused him untold anguish over the years. He suffers perhaps the most in those moments, during a bullfight, when he sees that a given matador is incompetent or misjudging a bull. When this happens, when all of the doctor's experience and knowledge tell him a goring is imminent, he leaves the ring and heads for the bullring infirmary. He can’t bear to wait and watch the human bloodletting. And yet each time he repairs one of the bull’s victims, he always returns to the next corrida, he says, because he so loves this fiesta bravo.

Drs. Rodriguez, father and son. To prevent a goring the son hopped the fence and tossed his Panama hat at the animal.

Drs. Rodriguez, father and son. To prevent a goring the son hopped the fence and tossed his Panama hat at the animal.

Rodriguez hasn’t missed a single bullfight in Tijuana’s downtown Plaza el Toreo in the last thirty-nine years, although he says, in Spanish, “I've had setbacks, many setbacks, but I've continued ahead, ahead, ahead.” Today, he says, the bullfighters of the world have come to love him. His son Jose, who is also a surgeon and his chief assistant at the bullfights, elaborates, “When you ask bullfighters where they want to be horned, they say they want to be horned in Tijuana or Guadalajara [which also has a renowned team of specialists in bullfighting injuries]. We are considered the best medical bullfighting team in the world."

“I’m content with this part of my life,” the father emphasizes. A short, compact figure, he has steely gray hair, a penetrating gaze, and at sixty-eight, he carries himself with the easy self-assurance of one who has proven himself, in his own eyes and those of others.

He began demonstrating his bullfighting expertise almost immediately after coming to Tijuana in the fall of 1948. Born in the state of Durango, Rodriguez had left his hometown a decade earlier to study medicine at the University of Mexico.

The physicians duck behind a wooden barrier marked Servicio Medico.

The physicians duck behind a wooden barrier marked Servicio Medico.

While in the capital, he attended bullfights as a fan and eventually met the doctors in charge of the Plaza Mexico infirmary there. They gave him his first introduction to the medical treatment of horn wounds, a specialty that Rodriguez says to this day isn’t taught in any book or medical classroom. Here’s why: take a kitchen knife, and plunge it into someone’s body, and — unless a vital organ is damaged or a major blood vessel is severed — you’ve got a fairly simple, straightforward repair job for a surgeon. You wind up with something very different indeed when you take a filthy, irregularly shaped bull’s horn, jam it into someone’s body, and then rotate it unpredictably, at terrific force. Rodriguez says untrained surgeons often have no idea how many separate trajectories can be created in the instant or two in which the goring takes place. For the victim to recover, each trajectory must be fully explored and cleaned, the broken blood vessels mended, and drainage tubes inserted to clear the infection that even the strongest antiseptics and antibiotics can’t always completely forestall. ‘‘Every horn is different,” says Rodriguez’s son. ‘‘It’s like a fingerprint.”

Matador falls and barely escapes, July 26, 1987

Matador falls and barely escapes, July 26, 1987

That’s why the training has to take place at the plaza. The senior Rodriguez says that before his arrival, two other doctors were attending the weekly bullfights at Tijuana’s downtown plaza, but when they heard about the instruction Rodriguez had received in Mexico City, they eagerly invited his assistance during the 1949 bullfighting season. Within two years, the two other doctors had stopped coming. “They didn’t like it. And they were afraid,” Rodriguez recalls. He then was appointed ‘‘plaza doctor” for the downtown facility.

That was Tijuana’s only bullring until the opening of Plaza Monumental (the city’s “bullring by the sea”) in 1960. Rodriguez says that at first, another medical team was installed at the seaside plaza but that the team never really won the confidence of the bullfighters. (“The doctor and nurse were crazy!” Rodriguez confides.)

Things came to a head one summer about twenty-five years ago, when the season at the downtown bullring had just drawn to a close. Rodriguez had departed for a vacation in Mexico City, so he wasn’t present, even as a spectator, at the seaside bullring when a bull there tore into the abdomen of a bullfighter named Jaime Bravo. The reigning physician took the wounded man away from the bullring to operate on him, leaving no doctor present when, fifteen or twenty minutes later, a bull charged up to a banderillero (one of the men whose job it is to weaken the bull by jabbing long, decorated darts into the animal’s neck and shoulders). The bull sliced through the femoral artery in this man’s leg, one of the most dangerous injuries possible, due to the risk of death from blood loss. Rodriguez says a veterinarian in the crowd stemmed the blood flow and thus kept the victim from dying immediately. But hours passed before the first doctor returned and decided that the man should be transported to Scripps Hospital in San Diego. “They operated on him in the emergency room there at four in the morning,” Rodriguez says.

The medical team every Sunday brings blood of all types to the bullring infirmary.

The medical team every Sunday brings blood of all types to the bullring infirmary.

Though the man survived, he suffered a lot. “He never fought again.” according to Rodriguez, who learned about what had happened days later, when he received a call in Mexico City asking him to fly back immediately. The bullfighters had decided not to fight in his absence. “Because I didn’t have a plane reservation, I didn’t arrive until 2:00 on Sunday afternoon. My doctors [assistants] were waiting for me at the airport.” They rushed Rodriguez to the hotels where the bullfighters, still undressed, were awaiting word of his arrival. Rodriguez says he went from hotel to hotel, finally heading for the seaside bullring with the bullfighters in tow. Eventually, he says, the toreros refused to allow the other medical team even to enter the infirmary, and Rodriguez was officially placed in charge of it too.

To this day, he makes it clear that the seaside bullring has never won his affection. For one thing, the infirmary there is shameful, he says. The owner never has cared about upgrading it, and Rodriguez blames the bullfighters themselves for not demanding a better facility. Though the downtown ring is older, the doctor pronounces it "muy torera (very bullfighterly), very happy, and very pretty.” He says, “The other plaza is cold. It's beautiful, but it doesn’t have the soul.”

When he first arrived, the downtown bullring lacked decent medical quarters; a tiny room with a dirt floor served as the infirmary. But around 1960, a distinguished matador named Jesus Guerra (“Guerrita”) had the doctor design a set of plans and from them constructed a solid little building located underneath the high stands near one of the doors leading into the ring. The inside of this building offers a cool, well-scrubbed respite from the arena outside, and it includes a spacious green operating room, a recovery room, and storage space. By American hospital standards, the operating room has a barren, old-fashioned look; there’s a grim metal table in the center of the painted and tiled room, a single movable lamp, some storage cabinets, and little else. Banks of glass blocks on three sides of the room let in light that seems to possess a filtered, dreamy quality. Rodriguez grouses about the dearth of equipment here. The room ought to have a full supply of instruments, but once again, the bullring management doesn’t care enough to pay for them, Rodriguez states. Instead, every week Rodriguez’s team of volunteer doctors must cart along with them everything from oxygen and respiratory equipment to the specialized tools that might be needed for any given wound.

Rodriguez figures that over the years, he’s dealt with at least seventy gorings. Most commonly, the horns have slashed into leg muscles, but the doctor has seen bullfighters wounded from face to foot. Rodriguez asserts that some of the worst gorings in bullfight history have occurred in the Tijuana bullrings; one was the August 1971 goring of the renowned Antonio Lomelin. The famous matador had just placed the banderillas in the bull’s neck and turned, when the animal drove one horn through Lomelin’s abdomen, just below the bottommost rib. In the infirmary, Rodriguez scrubbed up frantically, then cut open the site of the damage, revealing a liver that had been “shattered the way a rock shatters the glass window of a car,” he recalls. Today Rodriguez pantomimes the way he gingerly sewed the damaged organ, drawing a special needle in broad strokes, working from inside out. He says he then applied hot compresses to the liver and announced to his assistants, “Everybody relax. Now we can tell jokes.” When he removed the compresses after ten or fifteen minutes, the bleeding had stopped, and Rodriguez completed the surgery. Lomelin’s recovery from that wound led to him presenting Rodriguez with a scalpel made of gold, in recognition of his surgical expertise.

In 1977 Lomelin was again gored in Tijuana in a chilling incident in which the bull tossed him into the air, then waited to spike the bullfighter’s face as he fell downward. That blow cracked the man’s cheekbone and narrowly missed plunging through his eye and into his brain. The incidents demonstrate that even established matadors usually don’t escape the bulls’ wrath. In most cases, the bullfight doctor says, the matador commits some fateful error. “The bull warns them once,” Rodriguez says gravely. “He warns them again. And the third time, he gets them. Terribly!”

Sometimes the errors are blatant. Certainly one of the most ironic gorings that Rodriguez has witnessed could have easily been avoided. With fresh wonder, he tells the story of a torero named Andres Blando. Throughout his thirty-year career, he shouldered a reputation for bringing bad luck; the very afternoon Blando was confirmed as a full-fledged matador in Mexico City, a bull there killed a bullfighter named Alberto Balderas (with a horn through the liver). The phenomenal Spanish matador Manolete, upon his arrival in Mexico, refused to fight on the same program as Blando because of the latter’s sinister reputation, the doctor says. Despite this, Blando himself was never once gored and eventually gained wide acclaim for his artistry. Rodriguez says years passed, and toward the end of the 1960s, Blando finally announced his final fight in Tijuana. That day he wore a splendid new green-and-gold suit of lights. He fought well, killed his final bull. He’d taken his ceremonial turn around the ring as the bullring band played “Las Golondrinas,” the traditional Mexican song of farewell. He’d bid good-bye to the public. And with the sixth bull — which wasn’t his — Blando was standing in the outdoor corridor that surrounds the central bullring, chatting with the bullring doctor. Suddenly, Rodriguez recalls, Blando got a strange look on his face and announced, “Doctor, I’m going to make him give me that bull.”

“Why?” Rodriguez yelled.

“He’s mine!” retorted the newly retired bullfighter.

“Don’t go. You’ll hurt yourself,” Rodriguez implored. But Blando jumped over the fence crying, “Si, doctor. Si!” and Rodriguez says on the first pass, the bull got him. “An enormous cornada [horn wound], with three trajectories, in his upper thigh.” Rodriguez says. As he rushed out to operate, he says he told the man. “I told you so!”

The corrnadas are so unpredictable, Rodriguez says, he’s seen bullfighters gored even after they’ve delivered the final, fatal sword thrust and the bull has sunk to its knees, writhing in its death throes. The doctor remembers one Spanish matador who got too close to the flailing horns and fell victim that way, as well as a hapless American bullfighter who was injured the same way. (That same American on another occasion was gored when he lost his contact lenses in the middle of a bullfight and suddenly couldn't see anything, including the bull, Rodriguez recalls with a chuckle.)

But throughout all the years, only one bullfighter gored in Tijuana has died. That happened maybe half a dozen years ago, to an elderly banderillero who suffered a neck goring that cut his jugular vein and severed pulmonary arterials. The medical team performed three surgeries, and the man seemed to do well, even recovering sufficiently to appear before the press and other well-wishers about two weeks after the goring. But he developed an acute pulmonary edema in which his lungs filled up with blood, and he died suddenly, the doctor’s son recalls. “Sometimes you fix things, and they break,” he says.

Luck plays a major role in the bullring. That's the only way the Rodriguezes, father and son, can explain how it is that there’ve been seasons without one single goring and other bloody summers when mishap follows mishap; in the worst year, nine men were gored. Just this past Fourth of July, the bad luck was flowing. That day one banderillero was gored, and freak accidents wounded two other men; in one case, a young bullfighter knelt down to make a pass at the bull, and the bull kicked a banderilla that was lying on the ground, lodging it into the man's knee — irony that was not lost on the aficionados. Another man, who was running with a banderilla, cut himself with the deadly stick.

TWO WEEKS LATER, THE senior Rodriguez confided misgivings about the program scheduled for that afternoon. He had arrived a full hour before the ceremonies would begin and took refuge in the cool green interior of the operating room. Although he respected one of the matadors on the card, Mariano Ramos, Rodriguez was dreading the appearance of the other two, particularly a Tijuana bullfighter named Gabriel Gonzalez. “They're clumsy louts,” he said bluntly. “They don’t know how to bullfight. And they get mad when I tell them that, but I always say it.” Rodriguez’s son chimed in, explaining that Gonzalez was known for indulging in showy, dangerous stunts, like kneeling in front of the bull and swaggering around it, rather than executing the disciplined, purely classical moves of a true master. “He doesn’t know how to fight, so he does the other stuff. It’s the only way he can get applause. You just watch. Mariano Ramos is going to be out there, and everybody’s going to be very calm, and then the other will be fighting, and two or three times, people are going to jump or scream.” The old doctor predicted gloomily, “We're going to suffer."

The son bustled around the operating room, pulling in a large tank of oxygen and other equipment, then adjusting knobs and checking hose connections. Every week the room must be brought to a state of perfect readiness, since there’s no time for further preparations once a goring has occurred. The Rodriguezes say the bullfighters individually make some of their own preparations for disaster. For one thing, they customarily refrain from eating on the day of a fight because if they’re wounded and must be operated on, they’re much safer with an empty stomach; vomiting while under general anesthesia can be fatal. The senior Rodriguez says some of the toreros wear medals specifying their blood type, though not enough do. He’s lobbied to make this mandatory but with no success. The medical team every Sunday brings blood of all types to the bullring infirmary, though supplies are sometimes a problem. The old doctor says one time about ten years ago, his team used up all the blood stored in Tijuana while operating on a severely wounded banderillero. Hours later, someone showed up with blood brought from San Diego; Rodriguez isn’t sure who arranged that, but he says by that point it wasn’t necessary. Although that particular surgery had to be stopped four times when the banderillero lost all blood pressure, the man managed to survive. “He drives a taxi today," the younger Rodriguez says.

Working in this infirmary operating room differs dramatically from surgery in a hospital, the junior surgeon contends. He says the atmosphere is far more emotional, more charged with anxiety. “We know all these guys, and when one of them is horned, it’s like a member of our family has been hurt." Adding to the tension is the intensely public nature of a surgery on a horn wound. “Normally, if the greatest doctor in the world does a surgery, no one knows except the family and the patient. But if a bullfight doctor operates on the bullfighter, in every corner of every house, everyone knows that a bullfighter was horned and that the doctor worked. That creates a lot of pressure.” Finally, the surgical procedures at the bullring are far more rough and ready than in a normal hospital-based surgery. “There the patient is pre-medicated,’’ the younger Rodriguez says. “He doesn’t have any saliva in his mouth. He's half out. Here they have to knock him out as soon as possible. Just put a tube down the throat and put him to sleep.”

By 3:15 p.m., the other members of Rodriguez’s team begin to trickle in. Over the years, the veteran bullfight doctor has assembled an astonishing group of medical colleagues dedicated to the bullfights, and today he counts on his “team” some twenty physicians, including four anesthesiologists, and a passel of surgeons — thoracic, orthopedic, vascular, gastroenterological, plastic — plus three nurses from the Primavera Clinic, which the senior Rodriguez founded and his son now runs in downtown Tijuana. Some ten or twelve physicians normally show up each Sunday, more if a really brilliant bullfighter is scheduled to perform. The senior Rodriguez says the bullring management has complained over the years about the size of the local medical ensemble. (The doctors do get free admission to the plaza, though most of them receive no salary for their presence. The younger Rodriguez does get about twenty-five dollars for renting his medical equipment to the bullring, and he pays the nurses about eight dollars each for attending. The doctors also charge a fee after operating on a stricken bullfighter.) Most bullfighting rings in Mexico have only two doctors “who want to do everything,” says Rodriguez. He says that in contrast, the level of specialization his team has developed is a key reason so few bullfighters have died in Tijuana. “The management doesn’t understand how things go in an emergency,” Rodriguez says; he’s fond of recalling the one Sunday when a bull successively gored two matadors and a banderillero. Some team members worked on one victim in the operating room, while others created a makeshift operating platform in the adjoining recovery room. Still other team members worked on the third wounded man in an ambulance as it sped toward the downtown clinic.

On this particular Sunday, about ten doctors have arrived by the time the elder Rodriguez exits the infirmary to take his place beside the bullring. At the downtown ring, a low wooden fence surrounds the inner circle of the plaza, then maybe eight feet beyond begins the circle of concrete rooms in which the most privileged patrons sit. Rodriguez’s team commands an even better viewing spot than any of the private boxes. The doctors stand within the outer ring or alleyway, alongside the managers, assistant bullfighters, sword handlers, and other official personnel. Panicked bulls sometimes jump the inner fence and rampage through this corridor, triggering a frantic scramble for safety.

(The physicians duck behind a wooden barrier marked Servicio Medico.) Rodriguez is proud of his team’s proximity to the action; he says he’s drilled all the newer physicians on the imperative of jumping into the ring the moment a fighter is injured. Run from the bull if he comes too close, Rodriguez teaches, but return to the victim as soon as you can. Otherwise some wounds can cause a man to bleed to death within moments. There even have been times when the doctors have jumped in to prevent an injury. Rodriguez’s son says that just a few weeks ago, he was closest to a bull that was about to charge an off-guard banderillero, so he hopped the fence and tossed his Panama hat at the animal, creating enough distraction to allow the exposed man (and himself) to escape.

WHEN THE FIRST BULL of this afternoon — a cyclone of galloping muscle and slashing horn — bursts into the ring, the elder Rodriguez stands impassive, calculating. Other members of his team crowd into the space behind the medical team’s special protective barrier, but the veteran surgeon watches the drama from behind a smaller wooden shield nearby. He’s close enough to taste the sand kicked up by the bellowing beast; close enough to count the sequins on the matadors’ beautiful clothing. The horseback picadors jab the bull; the banderilleros stab it with their ribboned sticks, and from Rodriguez’s spot, one can practically see the bull’s heart beating, pumping a thick stream of blood from the animal’s wounds. The surgeon’s face remains impassive until Mariano Ramos, the first matador, begins the final series of passes that precedes the bull’s death. The passes are controlled, graceful, and Rodriguez’s stern face softens with admiration. “Un maestro,” he murmurs with respect. “Un maestro.

The ritualized dramas move swiftly. In less than twenty minutes, the first bull is dragged away. The second bull, a smaller animal with short curved horns, rushes out, charges, bleeds, dies. A third bull and the strutting Gonzalez make their entry. Rodriguez watches for some moments, his features growing stiller and tenser, his conviction hardening that this animal will rip into this man. Finally, the senior surgeon mutters tersely, “I’m going,” and strides out of the ring.

But he’s wrong. The matador escapes any injury (though he kills ineptly, twice failing to drive his sword into the bull’s neck). So Rodriguez returns to watch Mariano Ramos fight his second bull of the day, a disappointing animal. Minutes after it enters the ring, the veteran bullfight doctor notes that this bull can’t see well out of one eye, a factor that makes the animal less predictable and possibly more dangerous. Ramos manages to fight it without injury, however, if also without distinction. Before the other two less skilled bullfighters even begin their second performances, the old doctor exits the ring again.

He waits outside, within steps of the infirmary, and by the time the ill-esteemed Gonzalez again enters the ring, two of the other doctors have joined him. “My palms are wet,” one of them says ruefully. “Yeah, no one likes this torero, Gabriel,” says Rodriguez. “When they see him, all of them, they get very nervous.” Their edginess is palpable, and when a scream rises from the spectators, Rodriguez cries out, “What happened? Did he get him?” It turns out that the matador was knocked down but escaped injury. “The bull is really good,” Rodriguez harrumphs. “He got very good bulls, that guy [Gonzalez]. If he’d gotten the second bull that Mariano got, he’d have gotten it. He’s had some luck with the bulls.”

This is agony, the old doctor says, to wait passively, helplessly for the bull to seize his vengeance. “The bull is the best surgeon ” Rodriguez says. “But how he destroys! Terribly....” He says the years have brought him “many problems, many agonies, muchos incomprehensiones. The bullring owners don’t understand me.” But he loves this spectacle, and that’s why he’s stuck with it.

Only now is that long devotion drawing to an end. Rodriguez says he’s already informed the bullfighters that he’s ready to retire, and they’ve told him they don’t want him to go. “But we’ve really formed a team!” the old doctor protests. “It’s taken me many years, but now we have a team. I’m not indispensable. No one is indispensable in the world.” Rodriguez says his son will take over as surgical chief; the younger Rodriguez hasn’t missed a single bullfight in fourteen years, and the father says he’s passed on everything he knows. The father says he’s almost sure he’ll make his formal farewell at the Golden Sword competition, an event held every September in which six bullfighters vie to give the best performance of the afternoon. Though he’ll continue to attend the bullfights, the great responsibility will be lifted.

Already the old surgeon has substantially retired from his medical practice, though he puts in a few hours a week at his son’s clinic. He likes to golf, and he says another task also beckons to him: he’s going to write a book about his career as a bullfight doctor; he’s already started taping his memoirs.

He will write about how the spectacle first thrilled him as a young boy in Durango, where every Sunday he accompanied his father to the plaza. Years later, when he was a student in Mexico City, it was a splendid epoch for bullfighting, he says, and his enthusiasm grew; he particularly loved the legendary matador named Armilla. “I was an Armillista! ’ ’ he says proudly. In those days, there were groups of fans: Armillistas, Garcistas, Arucistas. It was very beautiful; very different from today. Today it’s just shouts from drunks. But then — no, no! One used to go and fight for one’s torero, applaud one's torero. I saw many great toreros, the best toreros in the world. There was more grace, then, more class.”

Great matadors over the years also came to Tijuana, he says, and he wants to write “beautiful things” about them. He has other stories, too, about these wild, eccentric figures. Rodriguez remembers, for example, the Spanish matador who suffered a terrible goring near his armpit. Rodriguez operated, then transported the man to his clinic, and left just as the man was beginning to recover from the anesthesia. The surgeon then went with some friends to a local nightclub to listen to some music and unwind. ‘‘We were sitting around a table, drinking, when suddenly I heard, ‘Hey doctor! Doctor!’ ” Dumbfounded, the doctor looked up to see the newly injured matador clutching a young woman on the dance floor. ‘‘I had left him just an hour before, and here he was dancing — blood running out from the area I had just operated on. He was just crazy! We got rid of the girl and took him back. I was really mad!”

That story reminds him of Alfredo Leal, a matador who went on to star in Mexican movies. Back in his bullfighting days, he was married to Lola Beltran, a famous folkloric singer. ‘‘I knew Lola Beltran,” Rodriguez says. “And she drove him crazy!” She happened to be in Spain when Leal was gored one afternoon in Tijuana, and the matador spent $400 on long-distance calls. ‘‘They talked all day and all night,” the doctor says. Two days after the goring, Rodriguez's nurses suddenly discovered that the matador had disappeared. Only later did the doctor learn that his patient took a plane from San Diego to New York, then from New York to Spain. “To see Lola! And the wound opened. There [in Spain] they sewed him up again.”

He says Lola’s first husband was another very famous matador of the day, Jose Ramon Tirado. In Tijuana he also received a wound that sliced through all the muscles in his right leg down to the bone. “Everything was broken — everything. And he was also driven crazy by Lola,” says the doctor. “On Thursday I arrived to attend to him, and no one knew where he had gone.” Only days later was it discovered that he had gone to a nearby steam bath. “With the wound that he had, the drainage tubes still in it. Crazy!” bellows Rodriguez. When he finally turned up, the man declared that he’d also gone to see Lola. “Lola Beltran Terrible!” Rodriguez unlooses a deep belly laugh.

It’s a colorful world, and he's been right near the heart of it for so long. Rodriguez says he hears those people who say bullfighting shouldn’t continue, and he knows that the spectacle has its pros and its cons. “Sure the bull can suffer — as the torero can suffer.” Rodriguez knows the suffering well. Like many aficionados, he points out that the best, bravest of bulls can be “forgiven” by the crowd, led out of the ring alive, then nursed back to health and used to breed more champions. Sure, this happens rarely, the doctor concedes. “But a valiant bull, a beautiful bull, a fine bull, a good bull, he has his prize. No one touches him ever again.... And I believe that the bull and the man, in the moment of doing these beautiful things, are a fiesta, a ballet.”

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