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Sand and waves: A Stanford physician reflects on her heritage

My childhood is shaped by sand and waves, and the steady memory of boogie boarding with my mother, falling onto wrinkled towels damp with the last swim and squinting at a dazzling ocean. I grew up in 1980s Orange County, California, raised by an obstetrician–gynecologist mother, from Iran.

In 1969, my mother realized a dream to one day live in the United States when she arrived in Boston to start her residency training. A month before her graduation, I was born. Two weeks after giving birth, she returned to work in the hospital on a shift that started on a Saturday morning and ended on Monday night. In the midst of marital separation, she didn’t have child care, so she took me with her, and a nurse held me as she visited patient rooms. After a few hours of that, one of the nurse’s mothers volunteered to care for me. By the end of that weekend, my mother's residency director said to her, “Don’t worry, Mahin, you don’t need to come back. Study for the board exam, the boys will take care of it from here.” She was able to have the few remaining weeks of residency off and passed her boards on her first attempt.

Years later, in 1978, my mother had a phone conversation with my grandfather, who was in Iran. He told her: “You can’t come back. There is anarchy and suffering in the streets. I can bring some of your things.” He was lucky. He didn’t have to escape on foot, through mountains and deserts, like others we know. He left by plane. And the next day, the revolutionary guards closed the Tehran airport.

Before he fled the revolution, my grandfather stored our family photos in the basement of his home in Tehran, where he and my grandmother raised seven children and buried an additional six. He thought he might go back. Instead, family friends later confirmed, other families moved into the home, and who knows what became of the photos. He never returned. At least he got out, as did his children before him, and escaped being killed because of our religion, the Baha'i Faith — a religion whose fundamental principals include the oneness of the humanity and belief in the spiritual unity of all major faiths.

In 1979, my mother and I moved to southern California, where she had a job at an expanding medical group. My car rides to school were made in a rush, because the OR was waiting, with me sipping Persian tea in the passenger seat and trying not to burn my tongue or spill it in our long white Chevy Monte Carlo. Occasionally, I would accompany her to work. Sometimes I’d take a nap on an exam table while she caught up on charting. Or I would sit in a colleague’s office, a thin girl cocooned in a large chair, surrounded by diplomas, medical posters and anatomy models, steeping in a physician’s service.

Back then, the ocean waves were possibility rising toward me, fully mine by law, Boston born, yet treasured differently than most of my peers. That seashore was a safe landing that I may not have had. It let me know that I could make anything of our pair: a Middle Eastern female physician boogie boarding with her only baby girl, who could now lay her head on a beach blanket soaked with freedom.

As an adult physician, the waves have taken on new meaning. Doctoring gets me up off of the beach sand and dips me into the horizon of life and death. I have the chance to witness life’s moments and be reminded of what is finite, and what may not be.

Diana Farid, MD, is a clinical instructor of medicine and practices at Stanford’s Vaden Health Center. She writes poetry and is an affiliated faculty member of Stanford's Medicine & the Muse program in bioethics and film. She is also a member of Pegasus Physician Writers at Stanford. 

Photo courtesy of Diana Farid

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