Elias Banuelos joined OLE Health in 2022 as Medical Director for Up Valley Sites, which includes our health centers in St. Helena and Calistoga. It’s a unique and tight knit community that needs a special type of provider in the role. Though originally from Southern California, Dr. Banuelos understands that community. He grew up the youngest of seven children in a home where Spanish was the primary language. Both his parents worked to support the family. He went to college focused on becoming an optometrist but changed his mind as he interacted with other students bound for medical school. When it came time to plan his career, he thought fondly of the family physician he knew from his childhood who cared for entire families, including his own. He remembered how the entire community relied on that doctor for answers when someone was ill and decided to pursue family medicine. In a full circle moment, coming to OLE Health has allowed him to be that resource for the Calistoga community. We spoke with Dr. Banuelos to learn a little more about his background, career, and what makes OLE Health so vital Up Valley.
What brought you to OLE Health?
I grew up in California and had spent most of my life here. In 2006, I moved to Florida from San Jose, but I really missed California and started to think about moving back. When I attended my 25-year medical school reunion, we did a tour of the Napa Valley, and I felt like I could be at home Up Valley. It was almost like a calling when I heard that OLE Health was looking for a bilingual provider. It felt like a natural fit considering there are so many retired folks Up Valley, since I was coming from Florida where I felt like I specialized in geriatric medicine! I really wanted to be in this area, and that made it a good fit for both of us. It was wonderful to step into a very efficient organization with people that truly care and are committed to caring for the community.
Do you see any parallels between your upbringing and your role now?
Up Valley, we serve a large Spanish-speaking population with many of the concerns that I remember working class families like mine faced when I was growing up. I remember how important the role of the family doctor was to my community growing up. Everyone would go to him for answers and assistance, and now I experience the same thing as the family doctor for this community.
What makes the Up Valley community special?
The community Up Valley is very diverse, and there are so few providers – even if you have commercial insurance. We see a wide range of patients from recent immigrants with low income, retired individuals from all backgrounds, and well-to-do community members with private insurance.
The community is small and tight knit. I run into patients and community members at the local supermarket and around my neighborhood frequently. One of my favorites is a local chief police officer in Calistoga, who helped me when I had a vehicle breakdown once. I always remind him that I will return the favor when I take care of him at OLE. I’m happy the folks in Calistoga see me as the local family doctor.
I recently was able to be at the Sunday Funday OLE Health hosted at the Calistoga clinic. We were able to take some vitals and direct patients to follow up on any concerns with their regular doctor, including getting them appointments at OLE Health. The community really appreciated what was offered, and I enjoyed being able to help my community and see how much they love OLE Health.
What are the specific needs Up Valley?
The Up Valley community is very close knit, and I see how people connect to OLE Health. They know our doors are always open to them, when there are not many other places they can go. We have people who travel from Clear Lake and Santa Rosa for services, because of our commitment to our patients.
Our Calistoga facility is small. We do a lot in that small space, offering both medical and dental care, but the needs of the community are growing, and we need to grow in order to support them. And we certainly need more bilingual providers.
Can you talk a little bit about your time on our Mobile Health Unit?
I had the opportunity to go to the farmworker housing and see patients there in the mobile unit. The farmworkers have a specific need in terms of access, and mobile health
is an ideal way to reach out and meet that need. By being at their housing when they return from work, it is more convenient for them to get care. These mostly male workers, needed basic things like blood pressure and blood sugar checks. And this provided an introduction, allowing us to connect them to additional appointments and services for chronic conditions or other preventative care. It is very rewarding to be able to see them and help connect them to the resources they need.