A young matador named Ortega is tossed by a bull and lies stunned on the sand of Tijuana’s Plaza Monumental bullring. Even as Ortega is being carried off, Dr. Jose Rodriguez Olivas hurries to the infirmary under the stands.
But Ortega, with the bravado of his profession, bounds out of the arms of his attendants and back over the wall into the ring again. As the crowd of 10,000 showers the matador with “Olés,” Rodriguez sighs in relief.
As chief surgeon for both of Tijuana’s busy bullrings, Rodriguez, 57, heads a medical team of 11 responsible for patching up those injured by the bulls. That can mean anything from a quick stitch for a cut to an emergency operation in the infirmary. In 25 years Rodriguez has not lost a bullfighter patient. (In fact, no matador has been killed in a Mexican ring for 36 years.) It’s not because the bulls aren’t trying.
“There have been terrible gorings here,” Rodriguez says, nervously keeping an eye on a fight in progress. “But the bullfighters, there’s something they have that makes them like what they’re doing. They call it a little worm inside.”
Rodriguez picked up a little of the same affliction himself as a child, when he went to bullfights with his father, a Durango businessman. Later, at the University of Mexico, Rodriguez studied under a doctor who ministered to Mexico City’s bullfighters.
Since taking over as Tijuana’s surgeon in 1950, Rodriguez estimates he has saved the lives of 20 bullfighters. The one he came closest to losing was Curro Ortega, who in 1960 was gored in the upper thigh—dangerous because of the proximity to the femoral artery. “The bleeding was terrible, and I ran out immediately to try and stop it,” Rodriguez recalls. “It was so bloody we couldn’t see, but we finally got the artery clamped. Ortega would have died right there if it hadn’t been stopped.” For Rodriguez, that case was also an object lesson in the temperamental nature of bullfighters. Ortega, after six days, “woke up and told me he wanted to die. There had been a tragic love affair.”
Most patients are more grateful. Many dedicate bulls to him, and one even presented him with a gold scalpel in a midring ceremony.
During the week Rodriguez puts in 14-hour days at Tijuana’s Social Security Hospital and his own clinic, relaxing with Saturday golf or at his seven-bedroom Tijuana home that has its own chapel.
While he says he no longer enjoys watching bullfights—”Even when I watch on television, I suffer”—Rodriguez hopes to keep the bullring practice in the family. His only son and a son-in-law are doctors. “I’ll go out the same as a good bullfighter,” he says. “He takes a turn around the ring, and then his assistants cut his pigtail. I want to do the same thing and leave my son and son-in-law in charge. Then I can quit happily and never come back.”