My 90-year-old grandfather survived COVID-19 & continues to serve his eye patients
In April 2020, I drove from my home in Washington, DC, to find my grandfather, who we call Babajoon, nearly unconscious on the sofa, shivering so badly that three blankets and a knit hat wouldn’t warm him up. He was not the energetic Dr. Parviz Mehri that everyone knew him to be. He had temporarily shut his ophthalmology office in Danbury, Connecticut, in late February 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19, and I had driven up with my step-mother to visit. He didn’t recognize who we were and seemed like he was trying to say good-bye. We immediately dialed 9–1–1 and an EMT team arrived who hurried him to Danbury Hospital, where he would be a first-time patient in a hospital at which he had performed eye surgery for decades. Within a few hours, we received a call from the doctor, who informed us that my grandfather had tested positive for COVID-19. We knew the rate at which the virus was wiping out folks at his age, so the news crushed our spirits.
My Babajoon had been practicing medicine for over 57 years and, before COVID, had no intention of giving up his life’s work — taking care of people’s eyes. Born in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, Parviz immigrated at the age of 17 to the United States in 1947. He attended school at the then-segregated Louisiana State University with his brother, Cyrus, where they witnessed severe discrimination in the Jim Crow South. After graduating near the top of his class in two and a half years, young Parviz went on to study medicine and ophthalmology at Washington University of St. Louis, graduating in 1956.
Missing home, Parviz returned to Iran, where he met my grandmother, Bahijeh Afzal, who worked at a non-profit organization in Tehran. He invited her out to dance, which was a very popular activity for young people in Iran before the 1979 revolution. Prior to working at the non-profit, she had been studying at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where her activism caught the attention of SAVAK, the U.S.-backed secret police of the Shah’s regime. My grandmother was not allowed to continue her studies and couldn’t leave Iran. After several months of dancing and dining, Parviz and Bahijeh got married. Parviz worked his connections to help Bahijeh leave Iran and they arrived first in Canada and crossed over a bridge into the U.S. at Niagara Falls.
They initially lived in Queens where Parviz spent his medical residency at Manhattan Eye and Ear under the tutelage of pioneer surgeon Dr. Byron Smith. With Dr. Smith, my grandfather learned techniques that prepared him to introduce contemporary cataract surgery to the Danbury area, which transformed the recovery time for patients from seven days to one. As Dr. Mehri’s storied career took off, he would see up to 70 patients per day and on others, perform up to 19 cataract surgeries. Meanwhile, Bahijeh, a contemporary, abstract painter in the Greenwich Village art scene, was diagnosed with Lupus, an auto-immune disease, which she battled for decades. With many near-fatal scares over the years, my Mamajoon passed away in 2007 on my own mother’s birthday.
During high school and college vacations, I had the privilege to observe my Babajoon at work and interact with his patients, many of whom he had been with for decades. From children to senior citizens, these patients shared a fondness for my grandfather’s kindness as their ophthalmologist.
In 2018, at the age of 88, my Babajoon was honored for 55 years of service at Danbury Hospital, the most of any doctor in the area. This past April, at nearly 90 years old and hospitalized just feet away from where he performed thousands of surgeries, his life hung in the balance. Having been exposed to the virus ourselves, my step-mother and I quarantined in a nearby town, anxiously preparing for the various outcomes. Due to the pandemic, we weren’t permitted to visit Babajoon in the hospital, but we received a call a couple of days later that his oxygen levels were very good and that he did not need a ventilator. The news only improved from there, and within a week, he was home again. Though quite weak from the virus, he began to joke that he would be back seeing patients in no time.
We gathered the immediate family to celebrate Babajoon’s 90th birthday in July and by that point, he had almost made a full recovery. His only complaint was that the virus had knocked out his medical practice. Well, three months later, he assembled his staff and decided they would implement all of the safety measures to open the office doors again. Sixty-eight years after writing his first prescription for bifocal glasses as a medical student, Dr. Parviz Mehri is once again attending to people’s eyes and wellbeing.