Fernando Silva: The Big Heart

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates men and women who make Minnesota a better place to live.

Fernando Silva, raised in southeast Brazil, used to leave school an hour early to get home and start baking bread for his extended family. Then he’d go to work on a neighbor’s onion plantation. He was nine.

When he was 12, his grandfather gave him a choice: He could go to the city, get a job and continue school, or he could work on the family farm for the rest of his life.

The choice was clear: Silva went to the city to work and study agronomy.

He landed a job at a Neapolitan pizzeria after having been turned away many times for being too small. He begged, promised to wash bathrooms, floors, anything. They relented. He stayed for four years, renting a room with his 17-year-old uncle (“to me he was very old”), going to school, and visiting the family farm on his one day off.

Agronomy eventually brought Silva to the University of Minnesota. But the restaurant world beckoned. “This is more than making a sandwich. It is a door to many rooms,” he says.

After many years, countless restaurants, and 18-hour days running French Meadow Bakery, he finally landed his own place, Harriet Brasserie, where classic bistro and Brazil come together.

Here, his work ethic cranked up to 11. Even one day off a week was too many. Still, on a rare, beautiful day at the park, his good mood got the better of him. He saw a bone marrow registry set up near the lake. He signed up, then forgot all about it.

Eight years later, Be the Match called. “I thought, ‘I never signed up for any romantic websites.’”

It took a while for him to understand the mission of the call. A six-year-old girl was in dire need of a bone transplant. By then, Silva and his wife, Kalinka, had a seven-year-old son, Yuri. It didn’t take him long to decide.

The procedure would mean multiple trips to Mayo, full physicals, and endless paperwork. He’d have to take time off work.

“But all of that stuff started to become secondary. Here I think I’m trying to run a restaurant and control my outcome, and feel that it’s so important. And here’s someone who doesn’t have a chance of controlling any outcomes.”

On the day of the procedure — he jokes that he finally got a vacation — he approached the hospital. It was empty. He couldn’t figure out why.

Then he saw Secret Service. Then he saw the Dalai Lama. Then, something exceptional happened. The Dalai Lama approached Silva, reaching out and straightening his shirt, tucking his hair behind his ear.

“I don’t know why, but he came straight to me. Not the woman or the child. He just felt it.” The monk gave Silva a pep talk in Chinese, but Silva understood. “It was like my uncle talking to me when I was a kid and I had to go back into the city. He said it was going to be OK. I was doing the right thing. It was really surreal. I felt very good.”

The child lived.

Under the rules of such transplants, Silva was never able to meet the girl, though they share DNA. “If she cuts her hand, and the blood is tested, the first name that would come up is mine.”

He’s had to return to Mayo for a second, fairly invasive procedure to donate a “boost” of white blood cells. Both procedures were very painful, though he doesn’t like discussing it, for fear it would deter others from donating.

“You get so much more out of it than even the person getting [the donation]. It’s like a reverse lottery, giving this large amount of prosperity to someone. I think this is what brings me to Minnesota. You think things like that.”

In a strange twist of fate, last month Silva noticed a lump in his lower back. He thought he had pulled a muscle. But an MRI identified a menacing mass. His doctor warned that it could be a tumor.

Silva waited a week and a half while they tested the biopsy. It turned out to be scar tissue from the bone marrow extraction. Completely benign.

He even thinks of that ordeal as a gift. “You become like a new person. Every day is a great day.”

Click here to see other entries in this year's City Pages People Issue.