Some would call Guillermo J. Valenzuela, MD, a hunter of sorts. He has accompanied men and their dogs into the forests of Italy in search of white truffles, an underground fungus considered a European delicacy.
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Explore This IssueJune 2019
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“Years ago, when visiting my wife’s family in Italy, I walked into a very old restaurant in Parma,” says Dr. Valenzuela, director of both Integral Rheumatology & Immunology Specialists and IRIS Research and Development, which supports two Florida offices in Key Biscayne and Plantation. “I smelled the pungent scent of white truffles and was totally inebriated.”
Since then, Dr. Valenzuela has become obsessed with the white fungus and impressed by the relationships between the hunters and their dogs, which are trained to sniff out truffles. He says the dogs can easily cost 30,000 euros (almost $34,000 U.S. dollars).
“Men walk in the forest and give their dog verbal commands that make the dog anxious to find the truffles,” he says, adding that truffles only grow wild and resist being planted or cultivated by anyone other than Mother Nature. “When they find them, both are in such joy. It’s something very nice to witness.”
Unfortunately, he only eats truffles when he, his wife and three children travel to Italy every Christmas to visit family. His father-in-law, a foodie, ensures truffles are always on the household menu.
“The truffles are cut into thin slices and served on top of a pasta dish with butter and Parmesan cheese or on top of scrambled eggs, which is a must,” Dr. Valenzuela says.
At roughly $200 an ounce, packaged truffles aren’t cheap and don’t compare with fresh truffles.
Hunting truffles is just one of the rheumatologist’s interests. He also plays tennis twice a week, sometimes with a friend who’s a Wimbledon tennis champion, and spends roughly two weeks every year riding a motorcycle in different countries. He says these combined activities help him enjoy his life as a physician, husband and father.
Passionate About Tennis
Initially, Dr. Valenzuela hoped to practice aerospace medicine, an offshoot of his father’s career as an aerospace engineer in Argentina. In 1986, he graduated medical school from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, but then opted to complete his training in the U.S. From 1988–91, he completed his internship at New York Medical College, finished his residency at the same school in 1992 and then completed his post-doctoral fellowship at North Shore University Hospital, affiliated with Weill Cornell Medicine at Cornell University, New York.
During his residency, he met John Zabriskie, MD, who specialized in infectious disease. “After multiple discussions and games of tennis, Dr. Zabriskie inspired me with his beautiful, challenging picture about rheumatology and immunology,” says Dr. Valenzuela, adding that Dr. Zabriskie became his mentor. “I fell in love with his view about rheumatology and immunology, and was very moved by his research on rheumatic fever. He helped me become who I am today.” (Dr. Zabriskie later became an emeritus faculty member at The Rockefeller University in New York and died in 2017.)
Dr. Valenzuela has played tennis since he was a child. He competed in the junior division and recalls sneaking out of his house at night to watch his idol, Guillermo Vilas, train at a nearby sports club. The former professional tennis player won many championship events, including four Grand Slam tournaments and nine Grand Prix Super Series titles. Over the years, the pair have become good friends.
After graduating medical school, Dr. Valenzuela spent nearly a year traveling and playing tournaments in Europe. Back in the U.S., he played in tennis tournaments sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation, played on the tennis team at North Shore/Cornell, won small events and coached tennis students.
“I’m fortunate to have met people throughout my life who became professional tennis players,” says Dr. Valenzuela, adding that one of his friends—Jean-Julien Rojer—won the men’s double titles in 2015 Wimbledon and the 2017 U.S. Open. Dr. Valenzuela says he can still “keep the ball in play” with them or play at their pace.
Create Your Own Happiness
To stay in shape, Dr. Valenzuela takes a core strengthening class at the local gym, which also helps him engage in yet another hobby: roaming the world on a motorcycle.
In recent years, he has taken motorcycle trips with friends. So far, he’s traveled on and off roads in Alaska and Canada, across Argentina’s salt flats adjacent to the Andes, through the Swiss Alps and across deserts in South America. This year, he’s planning a trip to Eastern Europe.
“It’s another way to stay connected with nature,” he says. “Each place, each environment, has a peculiar visual and scent beauty that’s very attractive.”
Dr. Valenzuela says these activities make him happy and enrich his life.
“Great people in history have had passion for something else in their life, not just their profession,” he says. “It educated them, gave them peace, made them happy and made them appreciate life better. We should all try to discover that something else in our lives that will make us happier and better human beings.”
Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.