Thank you, David Rimoin

There’s a country, I know, out in the sapphire glass heart of the universe, where every sick and ailing child has a likeness: One is of the flesh; the other, of light. One embodies what is; the other, what should have been.

What should have been, what would be, but for the tiny sleight of hand (is it of nature? Or God? Or that thing we call destiny?) that determines who will live and how. Who will thrive and who will hurt. Who will be spared, and who struck.

Every parent of a sick child, I believe, knows about this other country and its beautiful young people. It’s evidence of all that the child has been robbed of — this mirror image untouched by physical or emotional blight. Faced with it, most parents will seek to heal or, if that’s not in the cards, to lessen the child’s suffering; to convince themselves that there’s a larger design that remains incomprehensible; to embrace the perfect wisdom, the “loving kindness” of a creator whose resolve, we have learned, cannot be bent. A few brave or desperate souls, prompted by personal tragedy, raise the banner of war and seek new treatments or even a cure. With one hand, they hold and care for their child; with the other, they wrestle with time and the lack of resources and the indifference of a world that will not rally, not even listen, except out of self-interest.

It’s a rare and precious person who dares challenge the tyranny of chance in this way. But it’s an even rarer and more valiant soul who rejects that tyranny entirely, dismisses the stories about God’s will and “a reason why things happen” and, out of pure compassion and the desire to save the bodies and souls of the innocent and unsuspecting, devotes his life and many talents to correcting nature’s mistakes.

That’s what I learned the first time I met David Rimoin, at a gathering of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles. He was there to speak about the genetic testing he had recently developed for four Iranian-Jewish diseases, how a few drops of saliva and a few hundred dollars could end 3,000 years of a certain kind of suffering, spare every new child and every new family from the ruinous effects of a single genetic mutation. He couldn’t save the already affected, he said with regret, but with a little help from the community, he could ensure that the diseases would be eradicated for future generations.

I refer to him here not by his many titles — doctor of medicine, doctorate in medical genetics, director of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Genetics Institute, a pioneer in research in skeletal disorders and abnormalities who played a pivotal role in developing mass screenings for Tay-Sachs disease and other heritable disorders — but by his name alone, because, strange as this may sound, given the enormity of his contributions to humanity, the man was much greater than his work.

The gathering I mentioned was called not by Iranian Jews, who stood to benefit from the testing, but by David Rimoin and his team at Cedars. He was concerned that too few Iranians were being tested and wanted to learn why. From his experience with Tay-Sachs, he realized the importance of education. He knew that fear — of learning one has the disease, or of social stigma — played a pivotal role in any decision about being screened. With Dr. Michael Taback, his partner in the Tay-Sachs project, he spoke of the way in which the Orthodox Jewish community has conquered those issues, and he asked his Iranian audience for ideas that might be similarly effective. And he did all this with the same gentle modesty and generosity of heart, the same absence of judgment or arrogance, the same subtle determination and quiet empathy for which his colleagues and patients, his friends and his staff, and those, like me, with whom he crossed paths all too briefly, had come to know him.

And there I was, watching and listening and wondering why. Why was an American doctor of Canadian origin, an Ashkenazi Jew who had already made his mark in a much larger community, interested in saving Iranian Jews? I realized he was also working on some 20-plus hereditary illnesses found mostly among the Ashkenazim. But why give so much of his life to 100 or 2,000 Iranians when there were millions of others — people of Mediterranean origin, Finns, Haitians, Indians and African-Americans — with genetic diseases particular to their populations? There’s no celebrity factor, no high-profile funding, no media interest, even, in Iranian-Jewish diseases. So if the mountain should be climbed just because it’s there, why not select a taller, more recognizable peak?

I asked Dr. Rimoin this question once, and asked again, at a similar gathering a year later. Each time, he smiled politely and changed the subject back to what needed to be done. He was still planning a major public outreach, exploring an arrangement through which the entire cost of testing would be subsidized, and I was still wondering why — why us? — when he passed away late last month. Only then did it dawn on me that the answer had been obvious all along; that it was so patent and honest, so truly unselfish, I had looked right through it:

“It’s not only because the mountain is there,” Dr. Rimoin might have told me, “it’s because I’m here.”

By then, I had already realized that I wasted too much time trying to understand a man who was unlike most. I had asked too many questions and offered too little gratitude. That if I had been able to speak with the voice of our entire community, on behalf not only of the living but of all the future generations of Iranian Jews everywhere in the world, I would have said only this to David Rimoin:

Thank you. For what you gave of yourself and what you took away from the otherwise awesome legacy of Jews everywhere. Thank you for that river of light that, because of your efforts, now glows where once there was only darkness and pain. For the legions of children who will walk alongside it through every dawn and every sunset from here after, their bodies intact and luminous, in this universe and in the other.

A memorial service will be held for Dr. Rimoin on June 11 at 4 p.m. at the Harvey Morse Auditorium at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC whose column appears monthly in The Journal. She can be reached at

Dr. David Rimoin, pioneering geneticist, dies at 75

Dr. David Rimoin, a pioneering physician and researcher in the field of medical genetics, died May 27, 2012 at the age of 75.

Rimoin succumbed after a private battle with pancreatic cancer.

Colleagues and friends, many of whom were not aware of his sudden diagnosis, reacted with shock.

“We have lost a giant in the field of medicine,” said an official statement from the Cedars Sinai board of directors. “His medical contributions will continue to bring healing for generations.”

“David Rimoin was a magnificent scientist and physician whose contributions were global in scale,” said Thomas M. Priselac, president and CEO of Cedars-Sinai. “The arrival of David and his team in 1986 represented an essential element of the foundation on which Cedars-Sinai’s academic mission has grown and flourished over the years. His kindness and his grace were without equal.”

Dr. Rimoin held the Steven Spielberg Family Chair in Pediatrics and was Director of the Medical Genetics Institute at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.  He was also Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine and Human Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. At Cedars, he conducted groundbreaking research into dwarfism and skeletal dysplasia.  His 1970 demonstration that diabetes mellitus was the reflection of multiple genetic variants laid the foundation for the field of common disease genetics.  His 1983 textbook, Emery and Rimoins Principles and Practice of Medical Genetics remains a classic in the field.  Dr. Rimoin published over 400 articles in peer-reviewed journals.

David Rimoin was born in 1936 in Montreal, Canada.  He earned his PhD from McGill Medical School in 1961, and received his PhD in human genetics in 1967 from Johns Hopkins.

In 1970 he arrived in LA, where he built the division of human genetics first at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, then at Cedars Sinai.

Also in 1970, Dr. Rimoin recruited Dr. Michael Kaback, who discovered enzyme screening for the deadly disease Tay Sachs, a hereditary disease among Ashkenazi Jews. Rimoin and Kaback instituted Tay Sachs screening first in California, then throughout the Jewish world, and the incidence of Tay Sachs has been reduced by 90 percent.

Among his initiatives, Dr. Rimoin launched and directed the Cedars-Sinai Persian Jewish Genetics Screening Program in 2009, focusing on detecting genetic diseases in that community, which numbers some 20,000 in the Los Angeles area.

In a 2010 interview with Dr. Norman Lavin for The Jewish Journal’s ” title=”Dr. Kaback said” target=”_blank”>Dr. Kaback said of his longtime colleague and friend at a 2010 ceremony honoring Dr. Rimoin with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American College of Medical Genetics Foundation.

In a 2002 interview for the Oral History of Human Genetics Collection, Dr. Rimoin reflected on his own contributions to the field.

“What I really enjoy is putting people together and making these organizations work,” he said, “and making genetics a true specialty, which I’ve been fortunate to play a part in.”

“David had so much success,” said his wife of 32 years, Ann Garber Rimoin, Dr. Ph., in a statement, “but he was the most incredibly humble person, except when it came to bragging about his kids and supporting his family. He was wise, knew how to laugh, especially at himself, and he was the kindest man any of us knew – he showed us that kindness is the most important quality in a father, husband, friend and doctor.”

Dr. Rimoin, who lived in Beverly Hills, is survived by his wife Ann, his daughters Anne Rimoin, Ph.D.,M.P.H., and Lauren Rimoin, and his son Michael Rimoin.

The family is planning a private funeral and a public memorial. 

For the official Cedars-Sinai obituary,