Father and son help build FIU medical school

The Drs. Castellanos took their chances with FIU. Back before the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine welcomed its first class of students to campus, in the fall of 2009, father and son each separately cast his fate with the new school.

The elder Castellanos – both men are named Daniel – accepted the job of founding chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health.

The possibilities intrigued him in a way that going to a mature institution could not, the veteran psychiatrist says. “I think the challenge and excitement is building and growing the department,” he explains. The school’s rising stature and the department’s success – students have praised their psychiatry instruction as some of the best – have confirmed the wisdom of his decision.

A leap of faith

On the other hand, FIU’s unproven program posed something of a dilemma for the younger Castellanos, 25, then an undergraduate biochemistry major at Notre Dame University. Of the two men, he undertook the riskier decision when he chose FIU over an offer from Florida’s flagship medical school.

three generations of castellanos doctors

Four generations: Young Daniel, resting on the ledge, with his grandfather (Agustin), great-grandfather (Agustin W.) and father (Daniel) in 1993, when all three men were physicians at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Young Daniel recently graduated from FIU’s medical school.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” the Miami native recalls. He wondered: “Is this going to prepare me to be the best possible doctor I can be? Is this going to take me to my greatest potential?”

FIU won him over, he says, with its stated mission “to serve South Florida,” something he looks forward to doing himself. Twice he led fellow students from Notre Dame on trips to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Camillus House and other low-income-serving sites in Miami as his contribution to that university’s social action program. And during those visits he spoke with local doctors who expressed great interest in the opening of Miami’s public medical school.

What the younger man did not want to figure into his decision to go to FIU was that his father worked there.

“I guess it’s his way of emphasizing that his accomplishments are his own,” the father says.

And while the family always encouraged the son to follow his heart, it was the family legacy that confounded his career choice in the first place. His grandfather and great grandfather, both trained in Cuba, both as cardiologists, many decades ago set an impressive, if daunting, precedent. “I didn’t want to do what my family does,” the now-fourth-generation physician insists. And yet while seeking to establish his own path – he tried his hand at scientific research in a lab, thinking, wrongly, it might provide the basis for a career – he came full circle to embrace his birthright.

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Contributing to FIU

Daniel was not alone in wondering if fledgling FIU would prepare him for the rigors of a medical career.

“Everyone in our class has had that extra weight on their shoulders, that extra nervousness of being unsure what kind of doctor will I be after four years,” Daniel says of the 33 who graduated in late April.

Already at a disadvantage with no upperclassmen to grease the way or offer help with studies, the first group also had the added burden of providing much-needed, near-continuous critical feedback to the administration about courses and rotations. And plenty of times, as they headed to learning opportunities at medical institutions around the country, the students had to answer with information and enthusiasm the puzzled looks of physicians and others who wondered if FIU was a foreign school.

“We definitely had to work to both form the school and to build the reputation of the school,” Daniel says.

Now headed to a pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles—“It may be one of the last times that I ever live somewhere else,” says Daniel, determined to practice in his hometown—the new doctor recognizes the advantages of having thrown in with the historic first class.

“I’ve had a ton of support,” he says. Not only did the faculty spend plenty of one-on-one time with students, physicians within the community, particularly those with whom they interacted during clinical rotations at local hospitals, offered great encouragement. “I want you to be successful so you can come back here and work with me,” Daniel remembers hearing. “I’m not sure I would have gotten that kind of attention had I gone to that big state university.”

And the young doctor sees his work on behalf of FIU continuing, as an ambassador of sorts. “We’re going to be the first representatives of FIU physicians that the world is going to see,” he says of the Class of 2013 with pride.

As for Dad, he will have his hands full too. He is working on establishing a psychiatry residency program that would allow the department to offer training to recently graduated MDs at a local mental health center.

First, though, any parting advice for his son?

“There are no words of wisdom,” chuckles the older physician, foremost a father. “I just say, ‘Do your best and be safe.’”  

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