Sat, Nov. 30, 2002
By Michael Vasquez
The Miami Herald
The balcony of Joe Ramos' North Miami Beach condominium is a miniature rain forest. For the past three years, Ramos, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, has given more than 100 yellow iris plants the necessary water and nutrients they need to reach ever higher toward the sun.
Ramos avoids that same sun at all costs. His high-rise gardening is done in the wee hours of the morning, under the cover of darkness.
For him, the sun's oppressive rays mean painful falls, trembling limbs and difficulty speaking. Every MS symptom afflicting Ramos gets worse in the heat.
But about six months ago, a group of men came and removed the central air-conditioning unit from Ramos' apartment. The men said Ramos' former roommate, who had purchased the air conditioner, had failed to keep up with the payments.
So Ramos spent the summer surviving with fans and ice packs. He knew his symptoms were getting worse without the air conditioner. He lacked the money to do anything about it.
"I'm only wearing clothes because you're here," said Ramos, 40, during a recent interview.
Ramos describes his sleeping routine as follows: He places two ice packs behind his neck and two behind his shoulders. Then he tosses and turns for much of the night, moving the ice packs to different parts of his body until he finally passes out with them on his chest.
Lately, this scene plays out on the apartment floor instead of the bed. Ramos said he has a herniated disk in his back -- a consequence of all the falls, he says -- and the floor has become more comfortable.
For awhile, Ramos would leave his apartment door open, hoping to catch a draft from the air-conditioned hallway. But after several household items disappeared while Ramos was sleeping, his relatives persuaded him to keep the door closed.
Neurologist Barry Cutler, who has treated Ramos for the past few months, said there's no denying the adverse effects of heat on his patient, or any MS sufferer for that matter.
"MS symptoms can get worse even if they're in a warm shower or bath," Cutler said. Ramos was diagnosed with MS several years ago, but he says he probably had the nervous system ailment much earlier. By the time a doctor told him what was wrong, Ramos -- a high school sprinter -- could barely walk.
Recalling his last days as a banquet manager on Miami Beach, Ramos self-effacingly demonstrates his awkward gait, saying "it was embarrassing. Thank God the ballrooms were kept dark."
Ramos has several older siblings, but none has been able to scrounge together the roughly $1,500 it would cost to buy a new air-conditioning system. Ramos' brother Ed, of West Palm Beach, said his two jobs merely make ends meet.
Ed Ramos said he checks up on his brother as often as he can, driving him on errands before dawn and taking him to a restaurant, occasionally, for dinner. Other activities the brothers enjoy, such as shopping for clothes, are usually off-limits.
"He can't really try things on," Ed Ramos said of his brother. "If
he tried on a pair of socks, you're talking a 15-minute ordeal."
© Copyright 2002, The Miami Herald