More than a thoracic surgeon: Reza Mehran, M.D., cancer survivor and old-fashioned adventurer

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mehran417.jpgBy Madylan Eskridge

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

His colleagues liken him to a Renaissance man, but he humbly attributes his extraordinary resume to his affinity for new things and new places.

For example, Mehran studied what appeared to be a tumor on the left scapula of a gorgosaurus dinosaur in Houston's Museum of Natural History. Turns out, the growth was a callus, which implied this dinosaur had suffered a bone-breaking injury. Mehran's discovery gave scientists a unique perspective on this creature's ability to heal and survive. He'll continue pursuing paleontology this summer when he participates in a fossil dig in South Dakota.

"I'm an old-fashioned adventurer," Mehran says. "If I had lived in the 16th century, I probably would've sailed the world searching for unexplored lands."

Linguist, soldier and cancer survivor
Mehran is co-director of MD Anderson's Thoracic Center. But surgery isn't his only specialty.

Living in several countries has helped Mehran become a master linguist. The Switzerland native  grew up speaking French. Thanks to living in Iran for several years, he also speaks Persian. While earning his medical degree in Montreal, he learned English.

Afterwards, Mehran served two tours of duty as the commanding officer for the advanced surgical team with the United Nations Peacekeeping Services in the Yugoslavian wars.
"Our medical team was deployed with the troops in the danger zone," Mehran says. "We went where help was needed."

Decades later, Mehran, and many of those with whom he served, waged their own 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, literally.

Taking flight and diving deep
"After my knee surgeries, I wanted to find activities that weren't high impact but still challenged me. So I got my pilot's license," Mehran says.

After moving to Houston to join MD Anderson in 2001, Mehran bought an aircraft 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, 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."

Mehran recently started a new air taxi company.

"I hope soon to be able to fly my colleagues between our locations," says Mehran, who spends many weekends flying to New Mexico, his home-away-from-home, where he enjoys horseback riding and tending to his alpaca herd.

Mehran's interests take him underwater as well. A dive master, he scuba dives for fun, but he also specializes in hyperbaric medicine, treating patients who've been in diving accidents or using hyperbaric techniques as healing methods.

A never-ending thirst for learning

Despite his many adventures near and far, Mehran feels a strong connection to MD Anderson.

"It's truly a unique place to work as a thoracic surgeon,"Mehran 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."

Believe it or not, there's plenty more Mehran 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 hobbies that will continue to stimulate my brain without being so dangerous."

A longer version of this blog post originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly publication for employees.

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