Dr. Parviz Mehri: Half a Century as A Connecticut Ophthalmologist

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Parviz Mehri.

Dr. Parviz Mehri has been in private medical practice for 55 years in Danbury, Connecticut. Dr. Mehri obtained his degree in Ophthalmology from Washington University School of Medicine in the year 1956 with top grades. Dr. Mehri has been awarded six times for his contributions in the Ophthalmology field. Most recently, he was recognized for 55 years of service with the Danbury Hospital in November of 2018.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

My family is all from Tehran, Iran’s beautiful capital city; however, my father, who was a lawyer, was assigned to the city of Ahvaz, Khuzestan, so I grew up mostly in that city, which is in southern Iran on the Persian Gulf. Up until the age of 17, I spent primary school and my high school years in Ahvaz, and then went to a private school in Tehran called Alborz.
 The most important contribution from my family was their encouragement to stay on the right path. We spent a lot of time at school and when we came home, we spent many hours studying, writing, and preparing for the next day. As I grew up, the math, physics, and chemistry curriculum very strong — it laid the foundation for me to later enter medical school. I was very prepared when I came to the U.S. because my last two years of high school were essentially equivalent to the first two years of college in the states.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

Two important dates come to mind. The first, on July 3rd, 1963, Danbury hospital called me to come there and remove eyes for the eye bank. That’s when I discovered Danbury, which would become my home for the rest of my life. Near Danbury in Newtown, my late wife Bahijeh picked out a spot on the top of a hill for us to build our house and it has been truly a blessing.

I returned to Iran between when I was an intern and when my residency started at Manhattan Eye and Ear Institute. I took that year off to go to Iran, my place of birth, and amazingly enough, I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t know anyone. Half of my maternal family were not highly cultured people, many of them didn’t even finish high school. So I didn’t have anyone to relate to, so one day, I went to the American embassy and as I walked in, Bahijeh, was sitting at the desk.

This beautiful lady was a receptionist and she ended up being my wife. In those days, dancing was big in Tehran, and I used to take her out to do the tango, rumba, and mambo. That’s how we started dating. When it was time for me to return to the US, I thought she would come back with me. However, I soon discovered that she was ‘persona non grata’ because she had spoken against the government of Iran while attending the American University of Beirut.

So here I am, married to her, and she can’t leave the country. So in 1959, I talked to some people that I knew to get her out of the country and I laid out a plan for her: fly to Canada and just walk over the bridge at Niagara Falls, which is exactly what she did. When she got to the American side, she didn’t know where she was, and she talked to a man who happened to be standing there and said “Mister, where is America?” and he responds, “Lady, you are in America!” So, she walked over the bridge and made it to this side, and it took a year for her papers to come through.

In those days, in the early 1960s, Greenwich village was big in the modern art scene. I took her there a few times and she loved it — Washington Square had a lot of exhibits. Later, she went to an art school very close to downtown Danbury on West Street. She created a lot of beautiful original work. She exhibited at an art store in Greenwich Village and a European guy came over and bought one of her pieces. Most of her artwork is here in our house and I feel privileged to have her paintings — they hang in most of our rooms.

The second date that deeply affected me came almost forty years later, on September 11th, 2001, I was executing three cataract operations when the news came over the radio that the twin towers were bombed. It was such a mind-altering event that I decided not to do surgery anymore. I could have never imagined that the towers would be bombed. When my children were young, we used to go to the twin towers to the very top to have dinner with open views all around. The twin towers meant something to our family. I’ve never been back since the attack.

Why did you decide to become a doctor? Did your parents or other family members influence your decision?

One day when I was 13 years old, I woke my mother early in the morning. I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer, but a much better lawyer than my father. She said “Parviz! What the heck do you know about how good a lawyer your father is?” So a week later, I woke her up again and said, “If I can’t be a better lawyer than my father, I’ll become a doctor.” So, when I was 13 years old I became a doctor. From that point on I was always the top of my class consistently earning full credit on my exams. For high school, as noted above, I went to Alborz Collegiate, which was named after the mountain range just north of Tehran. When I got my degree from high school, I was advanced enough that when I came to the U.S. for college, they gave me two years for free. I got my undergraduate degree in two and a half years.
What was the most challenging during your college years in the United States?

My brother who was in the U.S. two years ahead of me loved Louisiana and the French culture, so two months after I arrived, we went down to Baton Rouge. The main challenge was the limited worldview of southerners in this country. They were just clueless as to what people from other countries were like, what sub-cultures they had, and how to treat them. Yet, I ended up getting a degree in two years, so I have no complaints; however, I would not necessarily recommend new entries into this country to go to the south.

I began at LSU in 1949, and the school was segregated. We only had one black student in our class. One day I was getting on the school bus going from one side of campus to the other when a black student walked onto the bus. He was going to sit in one of the front seats and the driver walked over to him, grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him all the way to the back of the bus because blacks were not allowed to sit up front due to heavy duty segregation. I was floored. I could just not believe what happened — when I saw the reaction on the black person’s face, it hurt me on a very deep level.

Washington University of St. Louis has a partial southern culture and even though they call it the Midwest. I didn’t realize that it would have southern culture as well before I enrolled there. I had other choices, I was accepted to several medical schools. At the time, I did not know that the Midwest had aspects of the south in it. There were some similarities in the racial attitudes at Wash U, but not to the same extent as at LSU. I would say that the culture of the Midwest was a mild version of the south. 
 For me, some people would say, ‘he’s a ferener’ and others favored me because I came from a foreign land. Overall, my experience was good at LSU, mainly because I was usually at the top of the class.
What training did you undertake to become an ophthalmologist? Do you have any advice for medical students and new residents working in this specialization?

When I was at Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri, I had to do a rotation — so orthopedics, thoracic surgery, and all of that. One day, I went to the eye clinic and there was a patient sitting there and someone pushed the slit lamp, the microscope that we use in ophthalmology, to the patient and I turned the light on and the light hit the patient’s eye and the pupil narrowed incredibly fast. This was the moment I fell in love with eyes and ophthalmology. I was very fortunate to find out early in my career, as a sophomore, that I found my specialty, which I’ve never regretted.
I do think that a student should try various fields early in their career before they decide what path to take because I’ve had friends that found out they were not suited for their chosen specialty. In particular, I had a very close friend who was an internist who hated it and at the age of 59 quit and went up north. Another friend, who went into radiology, just spent all his time playing tennis because he couldn’t stomach looking at x-rays. I would say if you are uncertain, try to do more rotations, and see which field you would really love what you’re suited for.

My situation is somewhat unique because I fell in love with ophthalmology when I was 22 and I’ve done it in private practice for 55 years. Not many people have done that.
Describe the typical duties of an ophthalmologist.

I stopped my hospital work emergency calls 10 years ago. When you are at the height of your practice, you do get a lot of calls from the hospital. You are awakened during the night. I remember one day, we had a major snowstorm and I couldn’t drive my car so I had to walk all the way down the hill from my house and hope that somebody would pick me up to take me to the emergency room. Very broadly speaking, your schedule is very much under your control. Much more so than for most specialties.

What do you like most about this profession?

I have to tell you that in my mind there is nothing that remotely compares to ophthalmology. It is a very clean field — there are very few emergencies, your hours are essentially determined by you. You can spend as much time as you want in your office. If you have loads of surgery to do, very little of it is emergency, so your schedule is highly at your command — both in the office and operating room. Surgeries for ophthalmology surgery is 90% elective. You can control your life, which is rare in medicine.

What do you tell people regarding the care of their eyes?

Children a lot of them have strabismus — muscle problems of the eye and a lot of children are born hyperopic, which is called ‘far-sighted,’ a lot of children have ‘astigmatism’ or near-sightedness. Essentially, ophthalmology is a specialty of both ends of life, children up to the age of 15–16 and older people starting at 60 get cataracts, glaucoma, so nature gives ophthalmologists a breather between these age groups. Even then, people in between need contact lenses or glasses and they’re not aware that their vision could improve with correctional glasses or contacts.
What questions should a person ask of their surgeon before undergoing an irreversible procedure?

Before a patient is scheduled for surgery, the patient needs to sign a consent form. That consent form, for example, tells the patient that the operation is generally successful, but also warns about risks of the surgery. If the patient has any questions about the consent form, I would recommend to them that they ask the doctor all kinds of questions. This is because it is a serious step that the patient is taking to not only assume that the operation will be successful but also know that there is a risk involved both in general health such as anesthesia and also for the potential loss of vision in eye surgery.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

I must admit that my career has gone on very smoothly and I can’t think of any challenges.
What achievements are you the proudest of?
In my case, it was introducing microscopic surgery, and introducing one-day surgery. When I started practicing, patients would have surgery without the use of the microscope, therefore, the chance of error was much higher. Because of very large incisions, patients had to stay in the hospital for 7 days and for the first 4–5 days with both eyes patched. As you know, a lot of cataract patients are older people, and often they would get thrombosis in their legs and an occasional patient would die. That would be terrible — it was hard to explain to the family why eye surgery would cause a patient to die. The foundation of changing this to a one-day outpatient simple operation is the introduction of the microscope. People, until I introduced modern surgery, would have the operation done with a magnifier, which translated to inaccurate incisions, and inaccurate suturering, which meant that the patient would have to lie in bed with patches on their eyes.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

I mostly feel American, while I’m here, but when I’m with my family, I feel Iranian. Suddenly I feel Iranian when Nowruz arrives, which historically dates to 1000 years before Christ was even heard of. Persia has a very ancient culture, so here we live a totally American life, but when the 21st of March arrives, suddenly we become Iranian and walk back to our tradition.

Nowruz, which means ‘new day’ and of course living in this country, you have to have Christmas events, new year events. Going back a decade, I thought I should combine Nowruz and Christmas and I created a family event called Nowruzmas. It’s been a successful, special event. Every year, we try to bring new people. This year, of course, was Dr. Chris Reynolds, who is an ophthalmological colleague. For me, Nowruzmas touches my heart in a very profound way. It brings family and friends together and to attempts to maintain the integrity of our Persian culture while combining it with what has become an integral part of American culture: Christmas.

English, which has influenced me the most, and Farsi, which is an Arian-Indo-European language, are the two languages I hold closest to me. Of course, I also learned French and German and I know a tiny bit of Arabic and Turkish. Amazingly enough, I grew up learning English very early in my life in grade school. English has always been a second language for me. We had to learn basic Latin and Greek when we were preparing to get into medical school. My love for etymology goes back to my father’s teaching, he had friends of different backgrounds, Armenian, Jewish, Syrian, so very early in life, we were exposed to people of different cultures, historic backgrounds, and languages.

Of course, you must know that literature is big, big, big among Persians going back to Omar Khayyam, Saddi, Hafez — all those illustrious Persian poets and writers. It’s very much part of the culture as one grows up as an Iranian, particularly as a Persian; much more so than here.