In the Halls of Hematology: Meet Dr. Villasboas
Coffee, Portuguese, and Family - Doctor’s Orders
Jose Villasboas Bisneto, M.D. talks about growing up in Brazil and how his culture followed him to his home in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Villasboas is assistant professor of internal medicine and oncology and a consultant in the division of hematology at Mayo Clinic Rochester.
What was it like growing up in Brazil?
I was born and raised in the city of Salvador, state of Bahia, on the northeast coast of Brazil. Salvador is a very tropical place where there are essentially only two seasons: A warm and wet fall/winter, and warm and less wet spring/summer. The average temperature throughout the year is 70ºF and the lower recorded temperature was 61.2º! Salvador sits on a beautiful costal region with miles and miles of sandy beaches. It is known to have hospitable people, lots of socioeconomic diversity and wonderful food.
I grew up with my parents, a sister, and two brothers who were all much older than me. I also grew up with a lot of nieces and nephews my age. We would go to the beach for about three months every year during summer vacation and stay at our beach house in Mar Grande (located in Itaparica island). An unwanted consequence of this upbringing is that I’m very picky when it comes to choosing a beach to go to. Our house was footsteps from the ocean so it is very unlikely you will ever find me driving to the beach. If I can’t get here walking I will probably not go. This is one of the reasons why I lived in Miami for four years and I never touched their beaches once.
What made you decide to become a doctor?
The way it goes in Brazil is that if you’re a good student, which I can say I was, there’s a lot of pressure for you to go into one of two professions. Either you’re a lawyer or you’re a doctor. It’s very looked down upon if you choose anything else and although I had some other interest – such as computer, mathematics, and technology – I did not have a chance, or drive, to give much thought to them as career paths. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but I said, ‘I like biology, and I like chemistry, so I must like medicine’. That was how my 17-year-old mind made the decision to go into medicine while being completely oblivious as to what medicine is about.
In Brazil, you have to make this kind of life-altering decision before finishing high school because you enter University right away – there is no college like in the United States. Like me, a lot of people choose their profession without much knowledge about what it truly entails. I am lucky, because once I saw that medicine is about taking care of people, I really fell in love with it. I love what I do and cannot picture myself doing anything else in life.
I may have chosen for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right reasons.
Was there a defining moment when you knew you made the right decision in choosing to become a doctor?
It was very clear to me at the beginning. The first two years is basic science training, so you don’t really see patients, but it really kicked in when I started going out on clinical rotations and actually interacting with real people. Then I knew it was the right thing for me.
Was Mayo Clinic always in your sights?
Once I realized I would like to go into Oncology, I looked at the top places for training. Amongst the options, the city of Rochester, Minnesota appealed a lot to me. It’s a small place, safe, good for family, and a place that is known for great training. This combination of factors is unique to this place and our family fit right in.
How did you meet your wife?
She grew up in a family that traveled a lot for her father worked as an engineer for a multinational construction company. Her family has lived in multiple places around the world in Africa, Europe, and many places in Brazil. She also lived in Miami for about seven years, which was the longest they’d ever stayed put in one place. She thought she was going to live the rest of her life there when her father suddenly got transferred back to Brazil during her senior high year, which was a tough transition for her. She went to the same high school I did when she moved to Brazil, which is where we met and started dating. We dated for 8 years (while I was completing my medical training) and we got married in 2008. We’ve now been together for almost 18 years and have three beautiful children.
How do you keep your culture alive living in Rochester, Minnesota?
My wife and I try to speak Portuguese as often as possible when we’re at home, so we can keep the language, especially for our children. It’s challenging when the kids speak mostly English amongst themselves but we keep trying. Also, we are in constant touch with our extended family back home – thanks for today’s technology.
Roberto (7), the oldest, is very proficient; he can speak very well in Portuguese, as it was his first language. It was helpful that not only do my wife and I speak Portuguese when we’re at home, but our nanny in Miami was also Brazilian, so she spoke the language with Roberto as well. He did not learn English until we moved to Rochester and he started pre-school.
Gabriel (4) did not have the same exposure that Roberto had and speaks in English a lot with his sibling. Naturally, his Portuguese proficiency is less compared to his brother but it quickly improved after a few days back in Brazil.
We are bracing for an uphill battle with our third child, Carolina (6mo) who will hear a lot of English from her brothers. We believe it is important, and helpful, for them to be bilingual so our battle to keep the language alive in the house will continue. Teaching them a second language during childhood is a gift we hope they will someday appreciate.
What is something that people may not know about you?
Since Brazil is known for great soccer players and their five World Cup titles, it’s a common assumption that every person who comes from Brazil not only knows how to play soccer but is also good at it. First, people assume that I like soccer, which I do a little bit, but not like the regular soccer fan. No one knows that I’m a terrible soccer player. Growing up in Brazil, the average Joe would be very good at playing soccer and I definitely wasn’t. I quickly learned to focus my efforts on to other things.
I am a bit of a coffee buff. I used to drink so much coffee I would get withdrawal headaches in residency. I’m very picky with coffee, I don’t really like pure brewed coffee. I prefer Italian-style espressos. I usually have 2 cups at home before leaving to work. I also like to try new coffees. Recently, the French press has been one of my favorites. The American way of drinking coffee - it’s really more drinking milk, cream, and a variety of different flavored syrups with some coffee added to it - really grew on me. I am now a regular at Caribou, which I had not heard of until moving to Minnesota. Coffee is frequently a topic of scientific discussion between my wife and I. I keep forwarding her all the papers showing how good coffee is for your health.
The other thing most people do not know about me has to do with my name. Back in Brazil, my family and friends call me Caetano, which is the second part of my first name (the C. in J.C.). No one that knew me growing up would call me Jose, except for my late mother who would call me ‘Jose Caetano’ on occasion – and I immediately knew I was in trouble. Also, most people don’t know that Bisneto is not a family name, despite being the last name in my case. Bisneto is a generation suffix and essentially means that I have the same name as my great grandfather (something like “the IV”). Villasboas is really my family name.
Do you have any hobbies or what is your favorite thing to do outside of work?
I really enjoy being at home and spending time with my family. I currently don’t dedicate enough of my time to much else to be able to call it a hobby. However, I do really enjoy cooking and grilling. Growing up, my family used to grill a lot. Not the typical American way of grilling, more of the Argentinian, Brazilian way of what they call, Barbeque. My friends and family joke when they see pictures of me grilling with a gas grill because no one back home does that. They all grill using a regular bonfire and coal. A lot of people would argue that the flavor is different, but I can’t tell, I think it’s the same.
What is your favorite activity to do with your family?
At this point, a lot of what we do revolves around our children. Our daughter, Carolina, is only six months old, so our routine is naturally socially restricted until she a bit older. In general, we enjoy being outside. We bike as a family a lot. I hope to be able to do some winter sports with them soon. This year I hope to take Gabriel and Roberto to Welch Village to learn how to ski, myself included, as I’ve never skied before. I’m sure my kids will surpass me in proficiency. I also would like to take them ice-skating, which I have done a few times. Roberto is really excited to try that.
So far, what would you say has been your biggest accomplishment?
Definitely my family. My wife, my children, I could not ask for more. In addition to that, perhaps my biggest accomplishment was to finally convince my wife to have a third child. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to have another child and I always wanted five, so we compromised and she is very happy.
We’ve built a beautiful family and I’m very proud of that.
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