Iran lost a soldier, but the medical world gained

October 13, 2000

A draft-dodger from Teheran escaped to Canada and a career at medicine's frontline, reports Philip Fine.

You would think there would be little to do if you were hiding out in a factory bathroom for two years. But stroke researcher Majid Fotuhi, who seems to find openings where others only see confinement, kept his mind occupied.

He was 18 years old and living through the Iran-Iraq war. The promising high school science major came out of his risky draft-dodging not only with fluency in English, French and German but also some burning questions about the natural world.

While hiding from soldiers who scoured Teheran for recruits, Fotuhi thought about what his teacher had told him about photosynthesis, how it used light in the most unexplained ways. And as he lay in the bathtub that he had padded with towels, he pondered the liver's workings - Jhow the body's filter recognised toxins.

During those days and nights, when he jumped at every sound and his despair kept his pillow wet with tears, his fantasy was to win the Nobel prize. To get anywhere near that dream, he told himself, he would have to study in Europe or North America, he recounted recently to The THES in Montreal after giving a public lecture for Concordia University's Science College.

When the war ended, Fotuhi fled across the Turkish border but was caught and sent to jail in his country. His father arranged to have him set free, but freedom was relative to someone driven to learn more than what could be offered by a war-torn country.

Disguised as a bearded cleric, he tried again to escape, this time through the eastern route, and successfully made his way across the Pakistani desert. From there, Fotuhi used a forged passport to hop a flight to Canada, where he claimed refugee status. Awaiting his hearing in Montreal, the detained man was surprised by the treatment he received. "I remember the fresh orange juice. I loved that juice. And the guards spoke to us as if we were regular people," he said.

He worked odd jobs and then pursued a biology degree at Concordia. Fotuhi eventually brought his five brothers and sister to Canada, a country that was beginning to feed his thwarted scientific appetite. As he studied the brain under the guidance of bacteriology professor Elaine Newman, he saw how well she was able to take the two-dimensional pictures and get her students to see the third dimension.

Fotuhi also taught science workshops to Montreal school children. In doing so he honed the skills he would later use at public lectures such as the one he was invited to give at Concordia. He is able to translate the complexities of his profession, where an aneurysm becomes bubble gum ready to burst and dangerous bloodclots are rulers jamming up on their way through a vessel.

His 1987 degree from Concordia brought Fotuhi to neuroscience and brain stroke graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He received his PhD in 1992.

It was when he attended medical school at Harvard University that he finally began to recount his story, telling the interviewers of the difficult path that led him to their college. There were many other Iranians at Harvard, and his two-year ordeal in the bathroom and his imprisonment did not seem farfetched to the administrators. "They must have heard these kinds of stories before," he said.

Since returning to Johns Hopkins, where he is a senior neurology resident and lecturer, the 37-year-old has become one of the institution's young lions, respected by such renowned senior research scientists as Solomon Snyder, Jack Griffin and Daniel Drachman. "They like to know we will carry the flag," he said of their admiration for him and his younger colleagues.

Fotuhi calls each stroke victim a tragedy, as he shows his audience a video of one woman whose arm he has to coax up. At the end of the lecture, he presents a successful case of another woman who came in early enough to be helped by a promising new clot-busting drug. He continues to remind the public of how easy it is to prevent the world's third-leading cause of death, a condition that also paralysed Louis Pasteur, Lenin and Winston Churchill.

The future still has many options for the neuroscientist, who seems just as interested in how to locate the brain cells that cause epileptic seizures as he is about educating the public to be aware of warning signs of stroke.

"It's enjoyable to dive in, to immerse yourself long enough in a problem," Fotuhi said, the two years of studying languages in the bathroom of his father's factory now a lifetime away.

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