By Heidi Simmons
Dr. Ruiz is Congressman Raul Ruiz and he has been serving the 36th congressional district for just one year. Yet his service to the Coachella Valley has been for much, much longer.
Raised in Coachella, the valley’s farthest eastern incorporated city, Ruiz’s parents exemplified hard work, dedication and duty, instilling in their son a love and respect for people and community. After his high school graduation, Ruiz made a promise to come back home, work as a doctor and be a community advocate.
At 17 years old, he donned a cheap suit, uncomfortable and two sizes too big. He drafted a contract offering locals an opportunity to invest in their community by investing in his education. He put the agreement in a borrowed briefcase and went door-to-door, business-to-business, asking for support and a vote of confidence. That summer he raised $2,000 for his education. More significantly, it raised his commitment and determination to make a difference.
“I grew up with the idea that if there is something you want to do, if there’s a wrong you want to right, you have to work hard. My father always said never to complain unless I was going to be part of the solution,” said Ruiz. “When Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack was voting in ways that was hurting the middle class, working families, our seniors and our students, that’s when I decided that I was going to do something about it.”
Elected in 2012, Ruiz went straight from the emergency room to the halls of congress for one reason and one reason only. “I wanted to improve the lives of the people that I served,” said Ruiz. “It’s the same mission I had as a physician taking care of thousands of people throughout the years in the emergency department. That is the exact same mission I have in Congress.” Only now, Ruiz does it through policy. His concern today is the broader population base instead of the individual base, although none-the-less important.
In 2007, with a Medical Degree, a Masters in Public Policy and a Masters in Public Health, Ruiz returned home as promised. “I started in farmworker trailer parks doing free public health education,” said Ruiz. “I organized with the Flying Doctors to provide free health care in the eastern Coachella Valley. I helped Volunteers in Medicine start a free clinic in the CV and I started a pre-med mentorship program with kids throughout the entire valley.”
Ruiz is also the founder of the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative. His research discovered that the valley had the equivalent of only one fulltime physician per 9,000 residents in the eastern Coachella Valley and in Desert Hot Springs. The purpose of the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative is to improve healthcare access and wellness for all residents of the CV.
Being out in the community, Ruiz listened to the stories of the people he took care of. “Seniors would tell me they went days without eating to save money to pay for their medications,” said Ruiz. “I literally saw them going through trash picking out aluminum cans so they could pay for diabetes medicine.” His students came to him in tears because they had to defer their education to work in the fields, in construction or in restaurants to save money in order to pay for just one more semester. Patients who were recently uninsured because they were newly unemployed, would come to him with severe illnesses.
“Much of the risks of better or poorer living has to do with the social determinants of health,” said Ruiz. “Do my patients have jobs? Do they have health insurance? Do they have a high school or college education? Do they have safe streets? Do they have the ability to start a business? All those factors affect my patients health and community wellness.”
For Ruiz the congressman, those are the extensions of his work as a physician. His mission has always been to not only treat individual patients, but to also focus on the social determinants of health, which are dealt through policy.
There is no sense that Ruiz brags or boasts, even though he is immensely qualified in his field. There is no hubris or arrogance in his tone or attitude. He is confident, friendly and willing to share. He listens carefully and answers fully. Ruiz takes his job seriously.
“A humble beginning” is how Ruiz describes his early life. But humble may be an understatement. Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Ruiz was an infant when his mother died. His father gave up custody to his sister and her husband, Blanca and Gilbert Ruiz, who adopted baby Raul. Gilbert Ruiz was born in Fresno, California. When Ruiz came to the United States with his new parents, he became a citizen.
Now with an older brother and a younger sister, the family lived in a trailer. He shared a bed with his brother. His adopted parents were migrant farm workers. Settling in the Coachella Valley, his father and mother worked hard to support their family. His father was a mechanic in the fields and then worked in the packinghouse for Sun World, Inc., where he eventually became a manager. His mother provided childcare for neighbors and kids in the community.
“I was always involved,” said Ruiz. “My mother really insisted that her children, my brother, sister and I, be involved with community activities. Specifically with our church and little league baseball. It was one way for her to keep us busy, for us to really socialize and to keep us out of trouble.”
Educated in the CV, Ruiz graduated from Coachella Valley High School. His counselor paid his college application fee. That gesture continues to affect him even today. “I still think of the beauty of those angels,” said Ruiz. “There at the right time, at the right moment.”
Ruiz was classmates with California state assembly member V. Manuel Pérez. Both were involved with student government at CVHS. Ruiz was class president all the way through high school until his senior year, when he was elected student body president.
With the money he raised that hot summer and with the help of scholarships and loans, Ruiz went to UCLA where he studied pre-med. He graduated with high honors. “Back then I didn’t even know where Harvard was,” said Ruiz. “It was the only out-of-state school I applied to and I got accepted.”
Ruiz earned and received his Medical Doctorate from the Harvard School of Medicine and simultaneously a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Ruiz did his emergency medicine training at the University of Pittsburg. After finishing his residency, he returned to Harvard to do a fellowship in International Emergency Medicine, focusing on Humanitarian and Disaster Aid. As part of the program he earned a Masters of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. Ruiz is the first Hispanic to receive three graduate degrees from Harvard University.
Returning back to the CV, Ruiz went directly home. “I essentially stayed with family members until I saved some money,” said Ruiz. “I wanted to pay off debts and help my mother.” He continues to provide total support for his beloved mother.
Ruiz worked at Eisenhower Medical Center and eventually got an apartment in Palm Desert where he still stays when he’s in the valley. “I simply like the apartment,” said Ruiz. “I’m waiting for the right moment to move out and buy a home.”
With his first year in office behind him, and with the intense problems in congress, Ruiz continues the care of his constituents. “We are definitely earning our battle scars,” said Ruiz. “Through the dysfunction of congress, we are really able to focus on our constituents back home and do some great work.”
For Ruiz, it is not only through the projects and programs but also through individual advocacy for the people who live in the CV. “That’s something that I said I would do when I ran for office and it’s something that remains a priority for me,” said Ruiz. “I want to bring a voice to everyone in our district. Not merely to represent, but to advocate. To improve lives.”
It’s essential that Ruiz stay in touch with his constituents. “Getting involved with the office, with our community forum and community events when we gather information, priorities, issues, and solutions that will help, is very important. Especially in our service to our veterans and seniors in our district,” said Ruiz.
He is also a big advocate for the valley’s youth. “We need to inspire our youth to pursue high quality professional public service,” said Ruiz. “We want to help them become problem solvers in our communities.”
Positive about the future, Ruiz said, “I think this year we are going to have some opportunities to create jobs and opportunities with economic development.”
When Ruiz is in Washington, D.C. he lives in a small apartment. It is just a 12-minute walk to his office. “I don’t know D.C. very well. I do know the path from my apartment to the capital building, because that is what I essentially do everyday.” Ruiz is not fond of the cold weather in D.C., but the majority of his time there is spent working in-doors.
Home for the holidays, Ruiz spent Christmas with his family and the community. He woke up early and did a few things that were personal in nature or as he says, “things to feed the soul.” Feeding his soul means feeding the hungry and visiting with seniors.
Ruiz passed out dinners with Meals on Wheels from the Mizell Senior Center. He went to three homebound seniors who don’t have family or friends in the area. Ruiz delivered them food and spent nearly an hour with each asking about their lives and getting to know them personally. “It’s something I have always enjoyed doing ever since I was a little boy growing up in Coachella,” said Ruiz. “It was very special. I got to meet some really good, good people.”
After delivering meals, he joined the charitable organization, The Well of the Desert, at the Palm Springs Convention Center where he helped serve turkey dinners and passed out gifts for children. The organization served over 1,200 people. “It was a wonderful, wonderful Christmas,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz spent the rest of the day with loved ones. His brother and sister are both married with two kids each. Ruiz’s nieces and nephews range in age from two to 11 and live in Indio. “I am a very proud and happy uncle,” said Ruiz. “They are my treasures. I absolutely love and adore them.” His mother still lives in their Coachella family home. Ruiz’s father (adopted) died in 2002.
Last October, on a flight back to California from D.C., there was a call for a doctor over the airplanes PA system. A passenger had collapsed. Without hesitation, Ruiz provided emergency help reviving and stabilizing the patient until the flight could make an emergency landing in North Carolina.
At 41 years old, the boyish Ruiz seems an unlikely hero and politician. Yet, over the last year, not just as a doctor, but also as a congressman, he has shown that he is his own man, capable, responsible and ready to do what’s needed.
Dedicated and committed to putting his district first, Ruiz says it is an honor and a privilege to represent his constituents. He is a homegrown son. An example of the good things this Coachella Valley can produce.
Besides his office in Washington, D.C., Ruiz has offices in Hemet, Indio and Palm Springs. He encourages everybody, regardless of party affiliation, to engage in the elections. If you would like to volunteer, contact his office and when there is an opportunity to participate, they will reach out by call or email.