There are a number of transitions that define my early life. When I was 8 years old, the Iranian Revolution occurred. My father, who is a psychiatrist and who had trained in the United States, found an opportunity for us to leave Iran, so we fled in 1978. We went to a suburb of San Diego that was not very diverse and tried to settle. But about 5 months in, the Iran hostage crisis took place. Iranians were villainized around the world, and the hatred toward my family escalated to the point where we no longer felt safe in the United States.
Not feeling welcomed in the United States, we decided to return to our family back in Iran and continue our life amidst the revolution. It was fine for some time, but then the Iran-Iraq War broke out. With that, there was a lot of danger for boys my brother’s age. He was 14 at the time and at risk of being enlisted into a war with an escalating death toll. It got to the point where my father decided to put together a falsified medical file to be able to get my brother out of the country legally. He and my brother left Iran for the United States, and my mom and I followed suit about 1 year later.
It may seem like my family and I were up against some difficult circumstances. However, with my father—the quintessential optimist—leading the way, we saw each obstacle as an opportunity. Having him and this experience of overcoming significant challenges in our lives, I have gained a glass-half-full attitude that has served me well throughout life. No doubt, if Iran had remained a stable and thriving country and we had not been forced to flee, life would have been beautiful in a different way. But then, if it weren’t for the Iranian Revolution forcing us out of our home country, my family wouldn’t be where we are today, with boundless opportunities we may never have encountered otherwise. Ultimately, I prefer to look at life as though it’s rigged in my favor.
Another turning point came for me during my medical training. I was about 2 years into my internal medicine residency with the intention of pursuing interventional cardiology. One night, I was admitting my 20th patient from the emergency room and suddenly got this flash-forward of my life being constantly on call. I overheard an ophthalmology resident on the phone next to me crying to her parents and saying she was thinking about dropping out of her coveted ophthalmology residency program. She was a resident at Jules Stein who was my age and was quitting her residency about 2 years into it. I thought, "Is this a message for me to look at this as an opportunity?"
I’m not sure exactly what happened to her or her vacated spot, but that event prompted me to revisit my interest in ophthalmology, and I began applying to different programs. I wanted to apply to the University of California, Irvine, where a spot had opened after a first-year resident dropped out. I called the institution and was told that the window for mailing applications had already closed. So, I drove to the office of Peter McDonnell, MD, and slipped my résumé under the door. (They hadn’t said anything about applying in person.)
Thankfully, I had an impressive enough application that Dr. McDonnell noticed. I went through the interview process and was given the position. If you truly believe that life events take a turn to teach us a lesson or to offer us better opportunities, you will see that life is indeed rigged in your favor. I tell my kids, “Make your own luck.” Be open to opportunities because they are out there; you just have to have a positive can-do attitude to capture them.