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The adrenaline-fueled life

Summer 2014

Always looking for his next adventure. That’s how this surgeon operates

By Madylan Eskridge

Photo: Adolfo Chavez III

When Reza Mehran, M.D., isn’t in the operating room, he may be piloting a twin-engine plane or flying a helicopter. When he’s not taking to the skies, he may be scuba diving or hunting for dinosaur fossils.

“I’m an old-fashioned adventurer,” he says. “If I had lived in the 16th century, I probably would’ve sailed the world searching for unexplored lands.”

His colleagues call him a Renaissance man, but Mehran attributes his extraordinary personal résumé to an affinity for trying new things and visiting new places.

For example, he studied what appeared to be a tumor on the left scapula of a Gorgosaurus (an older cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex) on display at Houston’s Museum of Natural Science. Turns out, the growth was a callus, which implied the dinosaur had suffered a bone-breaking injury. Mehran’s discovery gave scientists a unique perspective on the creature’s ability to heal and survive. He’ll continue pursuing his interest in paleontology this summer when he participates in a fossil dig in South Dakota.

Linguist, soldier and survivor

A professor in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Mehran also is co-director of the Thoracic Surgery and Thoracic Medical Oncology Outpatient Clinic. But he’s fluent in more than medicalese.

The multilingual native of Switzerland grew up speaking French. Thanks to several years of living in Iran, he knows Persian. While earning his medical degree in Montreal, he learned English. Later on, he added Spanish to the list.

Following his postgraduate training, Mehran served two tours of duty as the commanding officer for an advanced surgical team with the United Nations peacekeeping efforts during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

“My war experience was a lot like the TV series ‘M*A*S*H,’” Mehran explains. “Our medical team was deployed with the troops in the danger zone. We went where help was needed.”

Years later, he and many of those with whom he served waged their own personal battles against cancer, likely caused by exposure to depleted uranium that commonly was used in aircraft, armor and ammunition during the wars. But Mehran’s experience with leukemia and a sarcoma in his knee took him to even greater heights.

Taking flight

“I’m quite the outdoorsman. But after my knee surgeries, I wanted to find activities that weren’t high impact, but still challenged me. So I started earning my pilot’s license,” Mehran says.

After moving to Houston to join MD Anderson in 2001, Mehran bought an airplane and started a small commercial airline company.

A few years later, he learned to fly helicopters in Central America, where he picked up Spanish to communicate with his instructors and the air traffic controllers. Now a commercial pilot of planes and helicopters, Mehran considers himself an aviator as much as anything else.

“In many aspects, flying is similar to performing in the operating room,” he explains. “It’s a very strict environment. I like the discipline involved.”

Pilot and surgeon Reza Mehran, M.D., is also a 
budding paleontologist. He recently helped scientists 
with a discovery about a Gorgosaurus on display at 
the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Photo: F. Carter Smith

Always more to learn

Though he’s adventured near and far, Mehran feels a strong connection to MD Anderson.

“It’s truly a unique place to work as a thoracic surgeon,” he says. “I always want to offer the best to my patients, and here I’m able to because I can count on the expertise of the specialists around me. I’m thankful for the strong rapport with my colleagues and our common goal to cure our patients’ malignancies.”

Mehran’s colleagues say his cardiac and vascular surgical training, coupled with his precision and speed, have resulted in a fearless cancer surgeon willing to tackle any tumor. He’s described as a master surgeon, one who distills a complex operation into precise and deliberate steps with no wasted moves. His operations often are completed in half the time they may normally take, allowing his patients smoother recoveries thanks to his skill and their reduced time under anesthesia.

Furthermore, he’s an early adopter of approaches such as minimally invasive esophagectomies, in which small incisions are made and video-assisted thoracic surgery is performed with laparoscopic instruments to remove the esophagus. He’s developed techniques to minimize post-operative pain through nerve blocks and the infusion of local anesthetics, which have resulted in improved outcomes. He’s also skilled in a variety of palliative procedures.

Despite Mehran’s expertise in many areas, there’s always more he wants to learn.

“One day I won’t be able to physically keep up with my current hobbies,” he says. “So I’m trying to look for new ones that will continue to stimulate my brain without
being so dangerous.”

This story originally ran in the March/April issue of Messenger magazine, which is published for MD Anderson employees, retirees and their families.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center