Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi emerged during the pandemic as one of the most prominent voices in and for North Carolina’s Hispanic community
By Elizabeth Poindexter | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Some of Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi’s earliest memories in her native Argentina include sitting down with her parents and pretending to study when she was just 4 years old. The daughter of a vascular surgeon and a biochemist, Viviana also observed her parents and their reactions to living under a dictatorship; they shied away from political activism, but instead utilized medicine as a tool for change.
“It taught me that the best activism I could do could be through medicine and [specifically] organized medicine,” Viviana says, referencing professional associations of medicine through which she can practice advocacy for the communities she serves. “I saw their example as: Organized medicine can allow you to make changes that perhaps politics cannot.”
Viviana’s parents spent some of their time working in public hospitals – her father worked every day from 7 a.m. until noon for free at the hospital, modeling for Viviana how doctors could contribute to their community.
“That was his way,” Viviana says. “You have to give to your community. You have to work with your community.” She remembers the black bag full of medical supplies that he brought on sailing trips to care for others down the Paraná River, which ran near to where she grew up in Paraná. “People knew if it was my dad’s sailboat,” Viviana says. “In a way, he was like this moving clinic.”
Following her parents’ example, she knew she wanted to pursue medical school – a six-year process that, in Argentina, can immediately follow high school. She received her medical degree in 1990 from the National University of Rosario in Argentina and then moved to the Chicago area, where she had spent a year as a foreign exchange student during high school, and discovered her affinity for family medicine. That’s also where she met her husband, Greg Bianchi, a urologist who retired in 2016 after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“He’s such an amazing person,” Viviana says of Greg. “He has so many interests, and he keeps my life full.”
The couple moved to Iowa, and after practicing medicine there through 11 winters, Viviana says she and Greg were ready to move somewhere warmer. In 2006, they settled on continuing their clinical care with Duke Health after searching for an academic medical center well known for both family medicine and urology. She is currently the director for health equity for the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Duke University School of Medicine; she previously served as program director for family medicine residents. In December 2021, she was named family physician of the year by the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians, the most prestigious award bestowed by the state’s largest specialty medical association.
The accolades are meaningful, but Viviana sees her most impactful accomplishment in the launch of the Latinx Advocacy Team & Interdisciplinary Network for COVID-19, otherwise known as LATIN-19. She co-founded LATIN-19 in March 2020 alongside physician Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti. Every Wednesday for the past two years, dozens of health care providers from around the state have joined a call (Viviana says between 80 and 100 providers still join every week) to discuss pressing issues in Latinx communities, such as vaccine distribution. The organization held its first pop-up health clinic at the Latino Community Credit Union in February 2021 and vaccinated 150 elderly community members.
“It was beautiful,” Viviana says. “… This is the first time in the 15 years I’ve lived here where I feel that we are really paying attention and working together and making something meaningful.”
As a Latina who says she’s experienced many privileges, including receiving a higher education and her U.S. citizenship in 2003, she says her role allows her to amplify specific needs and influence decisions.
“I am here to listen to the [Latinx] community and help to get their [collective] voice elevated and heard by those who are making decisions who can actually make change,” Viviana says. “… Nothing happens if it’s just one person rising; it’s all of us together who can make a difference.”