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A pediatrician in Central Florida has made children’s health her life’s work since immigrating to the U.S. 20 years ago.
Moses Wendel and his father, Daniel Wendel, visit Dr. Cassia Portugal’s office in Orlando, Florida.

A prescription for caring

A pediatrician in Central Florida has made children’s health her life’s work since immigrating to the U.S. 20 years ago. But if you ask her, she’s just getting started.

March 16, 2017

An interesting thing happens when you’re a pediatrician serving the same community for nearly 20 years: Some of your first patients return years later as the parents of your newest patients.

Dr. Cassia Portugal sees this and more as the owner of First Choice Pediatrics in Orlando, Florida. She opened the practice in 1998 and now operates a chain of six (soon to be seven) pediatric locations in Central Florida.

Dr. Cassia Portugal designed the sixth location for First Choice Pediatrics, in Orlando, Florida, to resemble a castle. (2 minutes)

“We serve thousands of children from every walk of life and culture, including families from Haiti, South Korea, Vietnam, and Brazil,” said Portugal. “Our staff members speak more than 15 languages, and we champion an inclusive culture that rejects discrimination.”

Portugal knows the importance of a strong community. In the mid-’90s, she left behind her medical career and home in Brazil for a new start in the U.S.

“My husband, Al, and I wanted to find a place where our hard work would secure a better future for our children,” Portugal said. “So we moved to the U.S. and became citizens because we believed in America. But I also had to start all over, become a student again, and complete my pediatric residency.”

After finishing her medical degree requirements for a second time, Portugal and her family put down roots in Orlando and opened First Choice Pediatrics.

‘Happiness is non-negotiable’

As her business began to grow, Portugal used existing office space to accommodate expansion. But by the time she was ready to open her sixth location in 2014, Portugal decided to invest in building a space she could make her own. Her dream: an office built to look like a castle, where her young patients would want to visit even when they didn’t feel good.

“I wanted to create a pediatrics office that would make kids feel comfortable enough to actually ask their parents to go to the doctor’s office,” said Portugal. “For my business, for my employees, and most importantly for my patients, happiness is non-negotiable.”

With this vision as her blueprint, Portugal looked to Wells Fargo for guidance on planning and financing the construction of her “castle.”

“Going through all of the issues surrounding the ground-up construction of a specialized pediatric office resulted in us really learning about Cassia’s future plans to continue to grow the business,” said Marshall Harris, a Wells Fargo business development officer in Orlando. “Although this was her sixth office, it was the first location Cassia got to design and build exactly like she wanted, and it has really helped establish her company’s brand and vision for future locations.”

Harris worked with Portugal to secure financing via a Small Business Administration loan, and her dream became reality.

Now, as Portugal works with Wells Fargo on financing a seventh location — this one designed to resemble a desert oasis — she is also developing a community center to provide medical care and education about parenting, healthy living, and nutrition.

“The growth and expansion of First Choice Pediatrics is a testament to Cassia’s acumen as a business owner,” Harris said. “She’s as passionate about her role as a pediatrician as she is about being an advocate for the needs of low-income families.”

Portugal sees her latest project as her way of giving back to a community that has entrusted its children to her care for two decades.

“I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What can we do to improve people’s lives?’” said Portugal. “When the community center is completed, we’ll be able to extend that to outside of the doctor’s office, and hopefully make a difference that will benefit local families for decades to come.”

Note: A version of this story also appeared in the 2016 Wells Fargo Annual Report (PDF).

Contributors: Sara Harrison