In Loving Memory Of My Father, Dr. Ali Asghar Khodadoust

On the afternoon of Friday, March 9th, 2018, my father’s soul left the cage holding him in from reuniting with the great merciful, all powerful Grace. Holding his hand, witnessing his moment of transcendence from this world to the one beyond such immediate grasp, I will forever remember that deeply embedded smile of serenity that can only come from being uplifted into peace. To see him finally free of the weights that bound him, to see that expression be a reflection of what he felt in his exaltation from this world, held in this sacred moment with my mother at his side and surrounded by the love of his children will be a singularity of an experience. It also feels completely absurd to have witnessed as his child, since we had all started to believe after so many trials by fire on his life that he was perhaps Houdini, immortal, or the undead.

Such a passing may sound like the ideal for many, though perhaps in their homes rather than hospitals, and not so extraordinary — but it was extraordinary, not only for the respect of the sacredness of this time, but also for the unified expression of love from every person in my family towards him… for only we know what this man had sacrificed and endured for so long. I will forever be grateful for the peace in his final moments, for the way that we united ourselves as a family, though we could not all physically make it there in time due to the sudden decline, but we all made ourselves very present to be there with him however we could nonetheless.

In shock and awe, that night I set out to write my father’s obituary. My father was a very widely loved and respected man, and his life story is a legend that I can not do justice in a single article. I overheard my siblings talking about asking a professional writer friend to do it, and since writing was to be part of my grieving and process regardless, I asked if I might write something instead. I wanted the world to hear about my father from his family, from us, in our words. In words that could only resonate with the trials and bonds of being blood and staying adamantly strong in one another’s lives, I wanted what was said about my father to be true, honest, worthy, honorable, and heartfelt. I wanted us to be able to call our own family members to tell them the news first, one by one.

Instead, I was blindsided. Someone scooped my own father’s obituary across the world. Phoned in a panic from a close relative at two in the morning, she asked if the rumors on Instagram were true. The news was out. Why should such a close member of my family find out through Instagram that my father passed rather than through our own lips to them? I felt livid that family of mine was robbed of hearing news through the kind loving voices of other family. Instagram? Really?

Then more news was out. Then false news was out. Truly, false news of his passing already was published just months ago in January. My brother ordered a copy of the paper with the article in it to be mailed so my father could take a photograph alongside it. Do you know how hard a toll it takes on a mind to see in print that your loved one has passed? Without confirmation? What if you saw your own obituary — how could one feel about such a thing? Why has everyone been so ready to jump to mourn him?

That night, the night my father passed, instead of writing him an obituary I did as much damage control to find the source of all this news. It was being published on websites all over Iran, not just in Shiraz, his hometown, but in Tehran and everywhere else. To clarify, I am deeply moved and humbled by the love that people had for the man who raised me, and to hear a global community mourn the loss of a beloved man makes me feel proud to be his daughter. The jarring unease of internet-published articles about my father was a feeling borne from the words written without the vitality and passion which was an essential characteristic of the person I knew my father to be. They were not outpourings of love but rote facts pulled from random articles published online, from people who did not either seem interested in their content rather than existence to publish “news”. And some of it just was not true.

In the hours between four and six in the morning following his passing, I wrote the following to honor my father’s memory. I did not have any time to edit, proofread, or go beyond the stage of the first draft due to exhaustion and the pressing need to have a statement put out to “the public”.

Dr. Ali Asghar Khodadoust, Beloved Pioneer in Medicine, Distinguished Humanitarian, and Ever-Striving Soul, Dies at 82.

Born in 1935 in Shiraz, son to Abdullah and Behjatosadat Khodadoust, Ali Asghar Khodadoust lived what can only be described as an extraordinary life defined by his passion, values, faith, and love of humanity. The breadth and depth of his legacy could not help but shine out past his humility, and he left this world better in as many ways as he could with each and every one of his days. He passed away in his 83rd year (per Persian custom) after a long battle with post-operative complications of heart surgery in New York City, New York.

(Toasts, 2007. c/o Mojgan Khodadoust)

A brother to Akbar, Mehrangeez, Rohangeez, Shoorangeez Khodadoust, and survived by brother Mansoor Khodadoust, Ali began life with dedicated work and diligence from a young age, embarking upon an unexpected career in medicine fueled by nothing but a peculiarly unique drive and dedication. Growing up in a life after the second world war, he always strived to support his family, whether through the work found in storefronts, in factories, delivering ice, sewing buttons onto clothing, or teaching in the small village of Darab after graduating high school. While working as a school teacher full time, he was able to pass the entrance exam with highest marks to attend medical school in Shiraz, teaching himself English with a dictionary at night to translate his textbooks. His distinguished dedication and perseverance of his character led him to be the very first foreign resident accepted at Johns Hopkins University, and his mentor Dr. Maumenee called him “the best resident I have ever trained” and his research “exquisite.”

His contributions to the understanding of corneal graft transplantation rejection revolutionized not only the understandings to reduce graft failures, but elucidated the mechanisms underpinning organ transplantation as a whole by focusing on the immune-privileged cornea. At a very unique time in medical history, such contributions allowed physicians in all fields information to revolutionize organ transplantation — what had only been but a fantasy at that point — into a reality. Furthermore, he convinced skeptical nations across the world, no matter their political affiliation, through his pro-bono eye surgeries on a jumbo jet hospital, to change their laws regarding organ transplantation once they witnessed the success of corneal transplantation to give the blind sight again near instantly.

Not only did Dr. Ali Khodadoust’s work allow for many long-term blind patients to regain their eyesight, but he spread this knowledge through the world. Upon the completion of his fellowship at Wilmer Eye Institute at Hopkins, his desire to bring back the knowledge to his homeland conflicted with Wilmer’s desire to keep his unique talent, and an unprecedented exchange program between Shiraz and Hopkins became borne of this conflict and for the sake of the inspiration of this singular man. This program between the United States and Iran ran between 1968 and 1979, and established a higher quality of care between these nations, and establishing an eye service in Shiraz that became “the preeminent clinical ophthalmology service in the Middle East” at the time.(1) In 1983, Dr. Khodadoust was invited on the inaugural flight of the world’s first private flying eye hospital, Project Orbis, and he not only did the free surgeries around the globe, but he helped to further the mission of spreading improved training across the world to all countries, establishing goodwill through the shared desire to improve the lives of others. In an interview by Geraldo Rivera on ABC’s “20/20” about this work, it was estimated that if only one doctor trained helped one patient per working day with their new knowledge, that after a decade 14 million patient lives would be affected.

Recognized and awarded at the highest levels by his colleagues at the Congress of German Ophthalmology for both his innovations and his achievements, his accolades alone could not cover the depth of the lives he touched. It has been estimated that Dr. Khodadoust has performed more corneal transplants than the top five surgeons in the United States combined, and for those whose sight he could not physically treat, his heartfelt emotional empowerment to give such patients meaningful lives with dignity separated him out as a physician who taught “the art of being human” to his student. In the words of former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, Dr. Khodadoust was a “hakim” who “heals not just people’s bodies, but also their souls.”

Honored as a National Treasure to Iran through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Dr. Khodadoust became the first living figure to be honored with such a ceremony in Iran by the globally renowned organization. Even during the years of Professorship at Johns Hopkins and running Chief of section of Cornea for the Eye Service at Yale New Haven Hospital, he continually returned to his homeland to treat victims of the Iran-Iraq war, a population heavily affected by leftover landmines, use of chemical weapons, even many years later, and for whom he not only gave back their eyesight but advocated for their voices internationally in the medical community.(2) Not enough articles have been written to encompass the breadth of heart he had in opening his home, in giving his time to those in need, and in how he inspired others to do the same for those they found in need. In the post-revolution years, he founded the Foundation of Iranians of Connecticut, and until his very last days he remained active as the organization’s president, so that he could unite the people of his culture together in continued connectivity with one another. That is the kind of man he was — one who brought people together, one who wanted to remind us to be good to one another.

Dr. Khodadoust’s lifelong dream, establishing standards of care for patients in his homeland as he saw in other countries, not only drove his life’s investments into what would be a forty-year long achievement of building an eye hospital in his hometown, but also drove an impetus for decreasing curable blindness worldwide with empathy and compassion. Even in the years of illness he faced, he furthered medical innovation by being the first man in the United States to be given a bacteria-eating virus, a phage, specifically engineered for him by his colleagues at Yale. This endeavor not only cured his infection, but ended up producing research which led to the discovery of a mechanism to reverse antibiotic resistance itself. Even in his years of fighting illness, he furthered healthcare for mankind.

Human were created “to achieve the lofty goal of being human, which is to connect with the divine, therefore one should always walk with God,” he once said. In his introspection of the meaning of life, he believed that “the physical body is just an edifice, and human organs are just for the preservation of the entity inside this cage.”

After nearly six years of his battle with the limitations of his cage, he released his soul into the universe. He is survived by his wife, Simin (maiden name Farazdaghi), and his children Marjan, Mehran, Maryam, Pooyan, and Mojgan Khodadoust.

For such little time I was allowed in the haze of my exhaustion and sense of loss of the greatest man I had the honor to call my father, I could not touch upon even an iota of the way he left a mark upon the world. I was approached at his burial ceremony for permission to publish this above piece by someone I’d never met before. I said I needed to make some revisions, that and he asked if he could attach my name to it. I said it was too impersonal a piece to have the voice of a daughter attached, and as such should stay anonymous and perhaps a photo credit given to me would be enough. Yet, that night, the night right after I watched my father return to the earth, I found just more falsehoods upon falsehoods about his life being put up without confirmation or care online. I saw entries made on Wikipedia in his name about where our family supposedly lived but never did, about where he attended school but never did.

(page of a newspaper spread for my father’s birthday. c/o Mojgan Khodadoust)

We never had a home in China, or in Italy. His alma mater wasn’t College of William and Mary…where is this information all coming from?

In a time before internet and article permanence, he had already been on major broadcast television globally. As a daughter it is a strange thing to find articles on your father in the New York Times or in Scientific American. Others would say what an extraordinary man my father was; to me, he embodied what should be the ordinary. I grew up with patients living in our home that he would bring back from abroad so they may have a better chance to have surgeries where facilities existed to treat them. Not until many years later did I grow up to realize not all such humans had such deep hearts. But my father was a man who made it seem so clear what the path forward was, and it was a path of compassion and valuing those around us. One of the women who had brought him patients like the girl who had been attacked by acid years ago, she introduced herself to me today and gave me a hand-made strand of prayer beads in his honor. Someone else mentioned that my father sounded like he moved from this life having achieved what he wanted to be — not just a healer, but someone that inspired faith in others to do good and make what they could in their world better.

For any great man to truly flourish and come into his own, behind him stands a family that has also made sacrifices so that he may share his gift and passions to others in need. God bless my mother, who spent all these years with much patience for this man, for she knew that his gifts and his heart were tools that affected not just the eyes he worked on, but were providing hope and cultivating good in the world without ask for anything in return. He truly loved and was passionate about what he did, and using each day to its fullest, always.

My dad would always remind us, especially during these long six years of post-operative complications — through which his spirit was so lifted by those reaching out to remind him of their love for him — that the body was but a cage, and we come from the earth and return back to the earth. Only but hours after putting our father to rest, my brother had to leave my mother to ease the hearts of the countrymen and countrywomen who loved him also so dearly. Without a doubt I can say that my father wishes to be in Shiraz, and will for most of his eternal life. For all the things my father was — an inspiration, a national treasure, a legend of ophthalmology, a tool of divinity for healing, a man who loved not only his country but also all of humanity — he was also a husband, also a father. For all these years my mother stood by him so that he may achieve his zenith of not only eradicating as much blindness as he could with his hands, but of raising the standards of care and spreading his values to inspire others, for all these years devoted to a man with a mission bigger than himself, at least now my mother will take a piece of this time of his eternal life to be close to him where she may visit him.

When a human gives so much of themselves in life for their calling, facing the void of the place they filled with such a large heart and wide smile in the public eye still is not quite something I have at least come to terms with. For these reasons, among others, I write as a daughter experiencing the loss of a father who was beloved by many, as a sibling in awe of all that my brothers and and sisters have done to honor the life of our father as best as we can while in our shock and still holding onto our love for him. I would love if people would share photos and memories of this man who is also a human. I find myself writing not to admonish “tabloid” type writers, but to encourage the words of those whose lives he touched with real stories, to ask for understanding and compassion of our loss in return, and to celebrate the life of someone who will be dearly missed. In the face of the divide of the two countries my father tried to unite for the betterment of humankind, I feel for the family members who could not be with us, here, so we may be united together, and the sacrifices being made to grant a my mother compassion in her loss, including those made to ease the hearts of others that cared for him. These are but the things we do for those we love.

In my father’s memory, we are proud he was so cherished by so many. It is my deepest hope that the values he represented — to be good to one another, to see each other as human beings first and foremost, to use your time and energy to change things around you to leave it better than it was before you, and to hand that baton in the relay race to the next generation so that they may move forward — that they live on in the hearts of the lives he touched. We are forever impacted by the people we know and meet. My father met so many with such an open, trusting, honest, and giving heart. What is more moving is that despite the risks of getting hurt in trusting others so openly, he always continued to do what be believed in his core was right, including being willing to be vulnerable to others in the face of uncertainty. This lesson sticks to me hardest of all. To still move forward, when tomorrow will always be uncertain, and life has no guarantees…. these are but a few of the pieces of the values by which my father always lived and also shared. I have gratitude for the recognition of the light that he was, of his good intentions and good will, of his wholehearted altruism, and of his deep faith in others to do the best they can in whatever circumstance they are in.

(Together. c/o Mojgan Khodadoust, 2013)

The world was such a bright place for having him in it. Let us hope that it only becomes brighter and that we can continue to spread that which he shared with us.

1. Cooney, Gene. “Making the Blind See.”
2. Khodadoust, Ali A. International Ophthalmology Review. “Iran and the Scourge of Preventable Blindness.”

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