Saul Valencia’s life would probably be a lot different if he’d missed that call.
It was late summer, and he’d just been laid off from his orchard job.
He stepped through the door at home and the phone rang. It was Washington State University’s admissions office, offering him a slot.
It was a second chance for him — he’d already been turned down once.
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He made the most of it.
Valencia earned a degree in microbiology from WSU and went on to medical school at the University of Washington.
He’s been a family physician at Tri-Cities Community Health in Pasco for 3 1/2 years, and he recently took on a new role: medical director.
It seems to be a good fit.
(He has) the ability to see our clinics from the patients’ point of view.
Al Cordova, CEO, Tri-Cities Community Health
“What he brings to the position is insight as to how our patients are served in our clinics, the nature of our patient population,” said Al Cordova, the nonprofit community health center’s CEO.
“(He has) the ability to see our clinics from the patients’ point of view.”
That’s because he’s been there. Tri-Cities Community Health serves a largely low-income population, and many of its patients make a living picking cherries, apples and the like — just like Valencia once did.
“When patients tell me, ‘I work in the orchard,’ I always say, ‘I’ve done that.’ I did everything in the orchard that you could do,” he said.
“I relate to patients. I know why they’re late. I know why they don’t want to come to appointments. I know why they don’t want to use insulin during the day ... I understand how horrible your check looks if you miss a day of work.”
The men, women and children who pass through the health center’s doors — “I understand where they come from,” he said.
Valencia, 43, started as medical director in June.
He was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and moved to the Yakima area with his family at age 7.
He didn’t speak English or have much in the way of formal education. School was a struggle; he had to repeat the first grade.
In high school, he wasn’t the best student. His GPA hovered around 2.6.
He remembers liking biology, but he flunked the class a couple of times because he had to leave school to pick fruit, he said.
College wasn’t on his radar, so after graduation he did what he knew — orchard work. It was the path he’d always figured his life would take.
But then a buddy came home on winter break from WSU and planted a seed in Valencia’s head. Why not apply?
He did, but was declined.
However, “in (the rejection letter), it said, ‘If you think we should reconsider your application, send us another letter,’” Valencia told the Herald.
He mailed off an earnest note, written in pencil, on a piece of notebook paper.
It took several months, but eventually Valencia was offered a slot.
He studied hard, determined to make a successful go of college. And he thrived.
Valencia flirted with architecture and construction management, but finally settled on microbiology as a major.
He aced the Medical College Admission Test, and earned a spot at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.
Valencia knew he wanted to work at a place like Tri-Cities Community Health. So he did his residency at a similar community health center in Yakima, and then came to work in Pasco.
He’ll still treat patients, even as he takes on the medical director role.
He looks forward to being able to make an impact in the post, he said.
“I think this role will give me that opportunity — to make a difference in the community, to make a difference across the board, for all the patients and not just my patients,” he said.
He aims to “make access better, (improve) quality, help other physicians become more quality-driven, do more quality, evidence-based medicine,” he said. “That’s my role, I think — to help everybody achieve their goals.”
I think this role will give me that opportunity — to make a difference in the community, to make a difference across the board, for all the patients and not just my patients.
Dr. Saul Valencia
It’s clear he has a special touch. As he walked through the lobby to an exam room on a recent afternoon, staff members and patients alike were quick to greet him.
Cordova sang his praises.
“To find a physician for medical director who’s outgoing, who can relate to people on all levels, who’s a people person, is a big plus,” the CEO said.
Valencia and his wife, Norma, have two children — Saul Jr., 12, and Xiomara, 8. They both talk about growing up to be doctors like their dad.
They’re among many who find inspiration in Valencia’s story.
He says he was lucky. He could have easily fallen off the path to becoming a doctor, but “my chips fell so perfectly (into place),” he said.
While Valencia was a student at WSU, he got a job in the admissions office. An official there mentioned the letter he wrote — the one that won him a slot.
“She said, ‘You know what? Nobody ever sends a letter. When we got your letter back on a little piece of paper saying you wanted to come in, we were like, Aww. We sat on the letter for a long time, thinking, what if he fails?’” Valencia recalled the woman saying.
But, she continued, “‘we decided to take a risk.’”
The school made the call. Valencia picked it up. He got to work.