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In Congress, ‘the Lens of a Physician’
November 16, 2012
“First and foremost, I will always be a physician, and my approach to problem solving will be based on the skills and approaches we learned at HMS and in training,” said Ruiz, elected Nov. 6 to represent California’s 36th congressional district in the state’s arid southeast.
“I will bring that perspective to Congress in order to be part of a larger team that will look out for the common good,” said Ruiz, who graduated from HMS in 2001.
The son of farmworkers, Ruiz grew up in an immigrant community in California’s rural Coachella Valley. As a high school senior, he visited local businesses, raising money for college tuition with a pledge to use his education to serve his community.
“From the very start he made it clear that he was committed to returning to work with the indigenous community from the Coachella Valley where he was raised,” said Alvin Poussaint, HMS associate dean for student affairs, who remembers Ruiz as a passionate and driven student with a gift for inspiring others. “He always knew that he would become a doctor, and return to serve his community.”
Poussaint is one of many mentors Ruiz credits with shaping his path; others include Paul Farmer, head of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, former department head Jim Yong Kim, Dean for Students Nancy Oriol and Daniel Goodenough, the Takeda Professor for Cell Biology.
“I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors at Harvard Medical School, who inspired me to think locally and globally and who re-instilled a dedication and determination to improve people’s lives through health,” Ruiz said in an interview Nov. 15. “One of the things that I appreciated from my mentors was to have the lens of a physician.”
Ruiz entered HMS from the University of California at Los Angeles planning to train in surgery, Poussaint recalls, but changed his specialty to emergency medicine because he saw a greater need.
Conversations with Oriol led Ruiz to pursue a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School; he completed his M.D. and his MPP in 2001; in 2007 he added a master’s in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
After his training, which included volunteer work in Mexico with Partners in Health, Ruiz made good on his early pledge, returning to California. There, he founded the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative with a mission to improve public health and healthcare access in the region.
A Mexican-American of Indian heritage, Ruiz was active in Native American and Latino student groups at HMS. During the last weeks of his congressional campaign, Ruiz’s opponent, Mary Bono Mack, criticized his activism as an HMS student, including his 1997 arrest at a demonstration in Plymouth, Mass., protesting the treatment of Native Americans.
Ruiz’s HMS mentors, however, cite the incident as early evidence of Ruiz’s leadership and commitment to work for change.
“Ruiz was instrumental in getting Plymouth to change their attitudes toward native culture,” Poussaint said. At the same time, Poussaint and others lauded Ruiz’s ability to listen and build consensus.
“When he commits to a cause, he does not back down,” said Rosa Soler, program director in the HMS Office for Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs. “But he is also a very good listener, and neutral. He will listen carefully and then move on a decision.”
“He is a sensitive, caring, fearless man,” Soler said.