Ryan Zimmerman could tell. From Wilson Ramos' tone when he asked to speak with the Washington Nationals' third baseman, the way he retrieved his phone to find the text message that said, in English, exactly what Ramos wanted to get across that day in spring training. This was important.
This was for Vicky.
Victoria Cabrera, the 13-year-old ray of light Ramos has come to consider a little sister. The slight, bespectacled, brunette girl whose ever-present smile does well to hide the turmoil going on inside her chest. It's a cruel reality that Vicky, a girl with so much love to give, has a leaky heart.
Crueler, still, that when doctors at Miami Children's Hospital examined her a few months after her first heart surgery, done in Venezuela in 2010, what they found was so startling they used the word "butcher" to describe her previous surgeon.
"She's a really, really good little girl," Ramos said. "She's young, and she just wants to live life."
Unfortunately for Vicky, living life is an expensive proposition.
'They saved her'
Vicky was 11 when doctors in Venezuela found that she was suffering from a congenital heart defect known as subaortic stenosis, a narrowing of the left ventricle just below the aortic valve that tightened a pathway essential in the delivery of blood to the aorta. Surgery, doctors in Venezuela said, would fix it. One month later, it was clear it did not.
A second procedure, a mitral valve replacement, was done at Miami Children's Hospital in March 2011 to help her reach the 13th birthday that has now come and gone. At the time, Dr. Richard Zakheim found her aortic valve also not functioning properly, but the mitral valve demanded more attention. The cost, without the U.S. medical insurance they lack as foreigners, was more than $300,000. They had no choice.
"Here in Venezuela, they told me she has no hope," said Marfa Mata, Vicky's mother and a close family friend of Ramos. "Many people can ask why I decided to have the surgery in the U.S. with the high cost. I am scared. She never had trouble with her valves before the first surgery here in Venezuela. That's why I had the second one in the U.S. They saved her."
Venezuelan major leaguers Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Carlos Gonzalez joined Ramos in helping Mata to pay down the first astronomical bill. But Mata, who works as a journalist in Venezuela and serves as Ramos' PR liaison, still owed a significant amount when Vicky began exhibiting signs that something, again, was wrong. Out with Ramos and his family in D.C. in September, Vicky almost fainted inside a Target store. Ramos just held her in his arms.
Families, lives intertwined
Mata helped Ramos learn English when he was a teenager in the Minnesota Twins minor league system. She sent him books and tapes to foster his grasp on the language, and she travels with Vicky to the U.S. often, sometimes with Ramos' family, to help with the language barrier. Ramos often jokes that Mata's son, Enrique Jose, 4, is like his own. When Vicky threw out the first pitch on Opening Day for the Venezuelan league's Tigres de Aragua last October, Ramos kept his promise to her that he'd be there to catch it.
Their families, their lives are intertwined.
As Ramos discusses his relationship with Vicky, he uses words like "smart," and "happy. She's laughing all the time."
"I try to help as much as I can," he finally says, after thinking it over. "Because, I love her."
But the nice moments, the ones of her smiling face captured in photographs, often mask her reality. Fatigue attacks without warning. Memorizing things in school in Venezuela is a challenge. She used to be an avid dancer. She can't anymore. She goes to school on days she feels up to it and takes Coumadin each day to keep her blood thin and so it won't clot.
Another surgery is inevitable. But the consult alone cost several thousand dollars.
This spring, Ramos — who makes $491,250, just over the league minimum — weighed asking his teammates for financial assistance. Fourteen Nationals will make over $1 million this season, but it wasn't a precedent he wanted to set, looking for a handout. After giving what he could, he felt he had to try, if only once.
"Wilson knows that if he needs anything or has any questions, he can come right out and ask," said Zimmerman, who made a point at the end of a team meeting the day Ramos spoke with him to inform his teammates of the situation and leave a shoe box at one end of the clubhouse open for donations.
"With things like that it's like, 'Hey, if you want to give something, great.' You don't have to but, you know, any time one of our teammates has someone they obviously care about, it's easy for us to give. It goes a long way for that family."
A final fix?
They raised over $3,500 for Vicky's doctor visit. Her mother's voice breaks telling the story. But even that act of goodwill led to another bill. Vicky is suffering now from an aortic valve insufficiency, a problem similar to the mitral issue in which blood moves backward into the heart instead of away from it. Surgery will fix it, they hope for good, but Mata, a single mother, fears the hospital will refuse to operate until her previous bill has been paid in full.
"We made an appointment for July," she said, staring at her $110,000 balance, hopeful more money can be raised by then. "And I know they are going to tell me we must set the appointment for the surgery. But I don't know what I am going to do."
Ramos will undergo an operation on his torn right anterior cruciate ligament Friday in Colorado, the latest turn in an eight-month stretch since the end of his rookie season that has been harrowing and painful. But he will get through it. He will return to the field. He will continue to distance himself from a year he'd likely prefer to forget.
When he worries, he thinks of Vicky, who is facing the dangerous prospect of a third major surgery in less than two years. He knows she needs more help than even he can provide.
"Every time when I see her, she's got a big smile on her face," he said. "That's pretty good."
• For those wishing to help, donations can be sent to Miami Children's Hospital, P.O. Box 862192, Orlando, FL, 32886, earmarked for "Victoria Cabrera, Acct. #: 4856804, Attn: Payment Financial Services, Maria Coro."
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