Doctor with ‘healing hands’ helps kids from Iran to L.A.
When Ralph Salimpour was six years old in Esfahan, Iran, he had malaria — a blood disease spread by infected mosquitoes that kills millions of people in the developing world every year.
After his parents took him to “The English Hospital” for a prescription of anti-malarial drugs, a guard at the hospital gate looked at the boy and told his mother, “He has healing hands.”
The man’s words in 1937 might as well have been prophesy. Seven decades later and across two continents, Salimpour is now a top pediatrician in Los Angeles. and will be honored by the UCLA Health Services Alumni Association in May.
In his self-published memoir, “Silent River, Empty Night” (Outskirts Press, $15.95), the 76-year-old Salimpoor recounts his journey in medicine and with patients in Iran, England and America.
Salimpour decided to become a doctor at an early age, after hearing stories about how two doctors saved his father’s life as a teenager from cholera and malaria.
“I owe my life to these two righteous people.” Salimpour’s father said.
“I think this night had an eternal impact on me. I worried at times if I could get accepted to medical school or if I could stand seeing blood or a child in pain. But then I remembered my father — who had lost his father at 2 and managed to raise a family — and reassured myself.”
If Salimpour worried about getting into one of two medical schools in Iran, it doesn’t much show. While no one would say his life was “charmed” — he was an Iranian Jew who fled the country at 48 to start life from scratch in America — the man makes it sound easy.
“I think my life is success story — it doesn’t matter what you go through as long as you see that you succeed,” he said in an interview.
And succeed he did. Salimpour graduated medical school at 23 years old, later becoming an expert in malaria and continuing his studies in England.
His sweet and meandering stories about pre-revolution Iran often have lessons. For example, when he was a medical student, a 16-year-old girl who cleaned his house and shopped for him suddenly became sick with joint pain and a fever. It turned out she had been drinking some of his milk, but didn’t know to boil it beforehand to kill the germs.
Salimpour treated her, and writes: “A lot of young children who should be at school learning, work to make a living in the developing countries. We now go to a supermarket, pick up our milk of choice, in size, fat content and even with our without lactose for taste and need, without remembering or appreciating that in just one generation before us, and in many parts of the world even today, milk, if available, is contaminated.”
Involved as he was in medicine — he became the director of the Research Institute of Child Health — Salimpour didn’t realize how bad things were getting in Iran.
“When you live in a revolution, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on day by day and you don’t feel it, but when you look back you are surprised,” he said. “When you’re a doctor you’re surrounded by people who praise you and compliment you, and you tell yourself, ‘Everyone loves me, how can any harm come to me?'”
But his wife knew better. In 1979, when they went to visit their oldest son, Pejman, at medical school in the United States, though they had return tickets, they took a few possessions with them.
“I knew that there was no way to go back, that there was no future for the children there, that there was no choice,” his wife Farah said.
She convinced him to start over in America.
“I knew that he was a hard worker and he could do whatever he wants,” she said.
But it was strange to leave everything behind, Salimpour writes: “I often wish I had had another look at our home before we got into the car, and had viewed Tehran better from above when we flew away, to better remember what I missed for the rest of my life.”
After a year in Cleveland, Salimpour convinced the head of UCLA medicine to give him an internship there, and he eventually opened up the Salimpour Pediatric Medical Group in Los Angeles, joined by his two sons, Pedram and Pejman.
Today, with three centers (Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Panorama City), they treat some 200 patients per day. But the patients are different from the ones he treated from infectious diseases in Iran.
“I haven’t seen a malnourished child since I was in Iran,” he said, smiling. Today, the problem is the opposite — obesity.
But he hopes his stories will help people put things in perspective.
“I tell the teenagers I see every day, I remind them they shouldn’t take it for granted they can have running water; they should not take it for granted they can eat whenever they want to. They can dress the way they want to, wear their hair the way they want to, and no one can tell them why,” he said. “We take it for granted here. I love every breath I take in, and I can do anything I like. I love it and I appreciate it much more.”
Dr. Ralph Salimpour with his grandchildren