“I haven’t purposely kept it a secret, but there is a major part of the story of my life that very few people know about”, world renowned urologist/surgeon and (Fox) television and (am 970) radio health and medical commentator David B. Samadi told me when I interviewed him in his mid-town Manhattan office last week.
“Since practically every interviewer has questioned me only on my work as a doctor and surgeon, and my commentaries on health and medicine on television and radio cover only medical and health related issues, this story of my past personal life has not really surfaced”, explained Dr Samadi, 48.
That explanation made sense. Still, as I sat waiting to learn what this personal story might be, I couldn’t help thinking that however interesting the personal tale he was getting ready to talk about might be, it was unlikely to be as interesting as his universally acclaimed work in medicine.
The Chairman of Urology and the Chief of Robotic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and named to the prestigious Castle Connoly America’s Top Doctors and New York Magazine’s Best Doctor’s List, Samadi, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of urologic disease and prostate, kidney and bladder cancers, has won that acclaim as a result of his remarkable history of success as a surgeon. Researching Samadi in preparation for this interview, I became struck by, among many others, this one particular example, of that success: Of the more than 6,000 prostate cancer surgeries he has performed the past decade using the Samadi Modified Advanced Robotic Treatment (SMART) that he invented and pioneered, almost 90% of his patients became cancer free, a heretofore unheard of success rate for this deadly form of cancer.
That success rate - coupled by studies showing that Dr Samadi’s surgical prostate cancer patients experienced marked reductions in blood loss, complaints of pain and days of stay in the hospital compared to patients studied who have undergone conventional treatments - has further added to his prominence in the international medical community.
So it was an easy journalistic decision, I thought. I would perfunctorily discuss Samadi’s personal story and then quickly move the interview back to medicine and his medical career, the originally planned topics. I changed that plan, however, soon after hearing his first few words.
“If you read my biography off the Internet, you will learn that I was born and raised as a Jew living in the Persian Jewish community of Iran. You also will learn that in 1982, three years after the Iranian revolution began, I, just 15 years old then, and my younger brother, Dan, then only 12, moved first to Belgium and then 6 month later to London, England, until we finally immigrated to America from there in 1984. There is not, as you no doubt saw, any mention of my parents. But still virtually everyone assumes we went with them. But we didn’t. And you will not find that important part of my life on the Internet. I feel it is now the right time to discuss it, beginning with how my life changed with the coming of the Iranian Revolution.”
Somehow I failed to connect the historical and the personal dots until that moment. But suddenly I could. Persian Jews have a collective history in their country going back almost three millennium, living many of those centuries in peace and many others under murderous persecution. With the ascent to leadership in 1925 of the secular Pahlavi Dynasty, ruled first by Reza Khan Pahlavi and then in 1941 by his son, Mohammad (the Shah of Iran), the Jewish Community had once again found peace. But 54 years later, with the advent of the Iranian revolution in 1979, along with the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Jews found themselves the target of hatred once again.
Preaching venomous sermons against Jews and Israel, Khomeini waged a campaign of murder and intimidation against the suddenly powerless Jewish community. Dozens of Jews were quickly arrested, tried and executed as spies. Within three years after the revolution, approximately 60,000 of the then 100,000 Jews in the country, fearing for their lives, fled to Israel, the United States or Western Europe. Two of the latter were David and Dan Samadi, but not the rest of their family.
“Dan and I were allowed to leave Iran but my father, who was a successful businessman, and my mother were not allowed to leave, and they kept my five year old sister Heidi with them because she was too young to be left to the care of a fifteen year old,” Samadi explained. “It was a very sad and frightening time. As my brother and I kissed our mother, father and sister good bye at the Tehran Airport, I didn’t know whether or not we would ever see them again.”
After their brief six-month stay in Brussels, David and Dan emigrated to London, where their family had been able through an intermediary to make arrangements for their room, board and schooling, leaving them, however, other than that, totally on their own. Samadi described those living arrangements. “All our living expenses and schooling had been paid for in advance by my parents, so we had no concern about our day to day living. We lived in a type of boarding house run by a middle aged couple in northern London, an area called Golders Green, and we both attended a private school nearby. While the woman and her husband were nice and decent people, they did not attempt to take the place of our parents, even on a temporary basis, nor, in truth, did we want them to.”
Samadi recalled how he and his brother eventually learned to cope with this new lonely life that had been thrust upon by them. “At first, it was very tough. Dan and I would cry ourselves to sleep almost every night”, he recalled. “Like any teenager would, I missed my school friends, who came from all religious backgrounds, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, and I missed playing on the soccer team, where I was the captain.”
“But mostly”, he elaborated, “ Dan and I missed our father’s hugs and our mom’s and sister’s kisses. We felt sad, and worse still, we felt sorry for ourselves. But then, as the months began to pass, we realized that the way to honor our parents, whom we were able to only occasionally speak with over the telephone, was not to sit around pitying ourselves but rather to succeed. We both worked very hard at school, where we both excelled in science. It was very soon after that Dan and I began to dream that we would become doctors one day. That dream also helped us combat our loneliness, but it still remained a part of us.”
While that loneliness continued even after Dan and David moved to Roslyn, NY in the USA in 1982, they became happier in their new surrounding. “The living arrangements in America were similar to those we had in London. The difference was that Dan and I fell in love with America. It didn’t diminish our loneliness, but the love we felt for our country, just living in this beautiful and free land, helped the next six years go by just a bit faster”, Samadi explained.
Those six years of life in America also became quite productive for both brothers. Dan and David continued to excel first in high school and then college. By 1990, David had completed his first year Stony Brook School of Medicine with honors and Dan was running an “A” average as a pre-med student in New York University. “As loving brothers we celebrated each other’s academic success”, Samadi recalled. “We were confident our dreams of becoming doctors would come true. But we couldn’t feel any real happiness because rather than subside, the loneliness we felt for our family only grew as each day passed without them’’.
That loneliness was to soon end. Giving in to intense pressure from the George Bush White House, the Ayatollah in 1990 allowed most, but sadly not all, of the remaining Jews held hostage since the revolution to finally leave Iran. Manoucher, Forough and Heidi Samadi were among those permitted to leave.
Samadi said seeing his parents and sister exit the door of their airplane at JFK Airport on a hot day in June 1990 was the happiest experience in his and David’s lives. “We just hugged and embraced and cried and spoke the wonderful words of love to our parents and sister whom we hadn’t seen in eight long years. In that glorious moment, my life had come together. I had done well in my first year of medical school and was confident I would be able to graduate, pass all the required exams, and become a doctor one day. And I thanked God that my family would be there with me to share my journey.”
They were and did. And as the doctor gave me an update on the Samadi family that had overcome so much, I could easily detect the sound of pride in his voice. “My parents are alive and well living happily in Long Island, enjoying their children and grandchildren, all with homes relatively close by, and seeing them living the American dream”, said Samadi. “Heidi became a dentist, married a wonderful man and is bringing up three great children. Dan’s dream came true. He is an ear, nose and throat specialist, has a great wife and three adorable kids. Being happily married seems to run in the family. I married an extraordinary woman and have been blessed with two happy and healthy kids, a boy and a girl. What also runs through the entire Samadi family is our love, loyalty and devotion to the United States of America.”
About his reasons for telling this story now, Samadi offered two. The first, he explained, concerned the current heated debate over the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons negotiations with Iran. “I have learned a great deal that might be relevant to understanding Iran and the current crisis. My family was forced to flee for their lives from a country in which their ancestors had lived for generations,” he stated. “So I understand better than most,” he asserted, “the dangers of the Ayatollah’s brand of deadly fanaticism. And I understand that any policy on Iran and its nuclear ambitions must be based on the premise that Iran under its current government presents an existential threat not only to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, but to the entire world. So it must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
“But there is another reality in Iran that I learned from my first 15 years of life living there”, he added. “That reality is the goodness of its people, all of whom - Muslim, Christian and Jews - lived in peace and harmony for two generations until the Ayatollah came to power…. America’s policy on Iran, I believe, must be determined by both of these realities.”
The second reason Samadi had chosen to tell this very personal story was based less on the politics of Iran and more on how he practices medicine today. “My practice is based on my ability to understand and empathize with the emotional as well as the medical needs of all of my patients, especially the many who come to my office with serious illnesses,” he said. “That ability to empathize with the fears and pain of my patients, I believe, goes back to the days when I myself was a scared boy living with his scared little brother in a new and strange country.”
Robert Golomb is a nationally published columnist. Mail him at MrBob347@aol.com and follow him on Twitter@RobertGolomb.
Update: 29 May, 2015