"It was assumed we'd wind up in the local union and do general labor and construction," Chris says. "Out of our whole family, nobody went to college. Our grandparents came from Italy to New York on a boat. My grandfather had a second-grade education."
His dream, though, was for his grandchildren to go to college.
The DeSimone family lived a life on the financial margins. The brothers watched their parents "save their walnuts" during the summer when their father earned a paycheck. When winter came, their father's construction work — and the family's "walnuts" — dried up. The first time the brothers had steady health insurance was during medical school. "Our health insurance was, 'Don't get sick,'" says Chris.
Though poor, the family was "rich in love," Daniel says. "We were raised by parents who supported us 100 percent."
Their parents, like their grandfather, also believed in education. "They knew education was the great equalizer," Daniel says. "We were told that from a very young age."
That inspired the brothers to work hard in high school. Hours spent in the library were a down payment on a different life.
One summer, Daniel took a job hauling 65-pound boxes of tile up flights of stairs for nine hours a day when the union needed more workers.
"After that job, Danny's grades shot right up," says Chris, who also experienced working for the union.
"To this day, whenever we're in need of motivation, our father says, 'I got helmets and steel-toe boots with your names on them, and we can have you ready to work at 7 a.m.,'" he adds.
"To this day, whenever we're in need of motivation, our father says, 'I got helmets and steel-toe boots with your names on them, and we can have you ready to work at 7 a.m.'"Christopher DeSimone, M.D., Ph.D.
The brothers' hard work earned both entrance into Niagara University. They commuted, sitting in classrooms by day and at the family dinner table each night.
"A lot of people encouraged us to leave the area and go to bigger schools, but we're both mama and grandma's boys and had a hard time leaving family," Chris says. "So we chose a school a mile from our house."
Both Chris and Daniel were drawn to the sciences. And both decided to pursue medical careers, inspired in part by childhood experiences.
Chris chose medicine in large part because of his grandparents' reverence for their cardiologist, Dr. John Macaluso.
"It was a big deal when they were scheduled to see Dr. Macaluso," Chris says. "They'd shower and put on their Sunday best. They adored him."
Chris' adoration for his grandparents translated into respect for their physician. "My Nanna and Nonno were my favorite people in the world," he says. "I named my kids after them. I saw how they felt about Dr. Macaluso and thought, 'I want people to feel that way about me.'"
For Daniel, the pull toward medicine came from being unable to help a dying classmate in middle school.
"We were having a pizza party, and a classmate tried to eat a slice of pizza faster than another kid and he choked," Daniel says. "He came over to me and I couldn't help. He ended up passing away. I remember feeling so helpless. It was the worst feeling."
And one he was determined not to have again.
After college, the brothers commuted to medical school at the University at Buffalo. Chris enrolled in a dual M.D./Ph.D. program, which would put him on track to graduate at the same time as Daniel, who was planning to pursue an M.D. degree. "Danny's three years younger," Chris says. "Enrolling in a longer program meant that we could finish medical school together and go to residency together."
On a whim, Chris applied for a residency at Mayo Clinic. He didn't expect his application to get a response.
"Where we're from, Mayo Clinic is the mountain top, the mecca, the dream," he says. "Coming from where we did and without anyone blazing a trail or making connections for us made this nearly impossible to pull off. We never thought we'd have a chance."
To Chris' surprise, he was invited to campus for an interview. He was immediately hooked.
"Something bit me when I came here," he says. "I remember being on a shuttle bus and talking with a mom and her daughter. The daughter had a lot of medical problems. The mom said, 'We're here for an answer. We still have hope.' That stuck with me."
After Chris' success, Daniel applied and was also invited to interview. Like his brother, he left Mayo Clinic inspired.
"If you've always been around Mayo, I think you can take it for granted," Daniel says. "But for us, there was an aura around the place."
"If you've always been around Mayo, I think you can take it for granted. But for us, there was an aura around the place."Daniel DeSimone, M.D.
The brothers decided to "gamble" and link their fates when applying for residencies. They applied through the National Resident Matching Program's couples match, which meant their residency placements would be decided as a unit. Both listed Mayo Clinic as their first choice. And on March 15, 2010, they got the news that they'd been accepted. Together.
"We were screaming at the top of our lungs," Daniel says. "Our parents were beyond bursting."
Their father advised his sons to get on their knees every night and thank God for sending them Mayo Clinic. Their mother wrote a thank you letter to Mayo for giving her sons the opportunity to train there.
Both Daniel and Chris went on to complete fellowships at Mayo Clinic. And today, both are staff physicians. Chris is a cardiac electrophysiologist. Daniel, an infectious disease specialist.
"We're lifers," Daniel says. "Our kids were born at Methodist. These are our roots now."
The brothers — who live around the corner from each other — say there's no better place to practice medicine.
"Mayo Clinic allows me to be the best physician I can be in the best environment for my patients," Chris says. "At Mayo, every boat is going in the same direction — the direction of the patient's needs. Where else can you say that?"
The brothers say that shared mission is more important today than ever before.
"We've all been through a lot over the past couple of years," Daniel says. "But our patients need us now more than ever. Some people haven't seen a doctor in a year or two."
Being able to care for those patients begins with caring for each other, the brothers believe.
"As part of a big health care family, we gotta take care of each other," Chris says. "We need to make each other laugh. We need to talk to each other. We need to support each other and look out for each other. We need to have each other's backs."
Just like brothers do.