A nurse in a Michigan hospital kissed the patient’s forehead. More than 6,000 miles away, Sanaz Nezami’s family in Iran watched the simple act over a laptop computer and wept.
Nezami, a vibrant 27-year-old woman who could speak three languages, wanted to pursue an advanced degree in engineering at Michigan Technological University. Instead, she was brain dead just a few weeks after unpacking her bags in a remote area of the United States, a victim of a fatal beating by her new husband, according to police.
Nezami’s time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can be marked in days. Her impact, however, will last much longer. Technology allowed family in Iran to watch her final hours and build an emotional bond with nurses whose compassion for a stranger from an unfamiliar culture gave great comfort to shocked, grieving relatives a world away.
The family’s faith in the staff led to consent for an extraordinary donation: Nezami’s heart, lungs and other life-saving organs were transplanted to seven people in the U.S., a remarkable gift that occurs in less than 1 percent of all cases.
“We wanted God to perform a miracle and bring Sanaz back to life,” her sister, Sara Nezami, said in a phone interview from Tehran. “But this is a miracle. Sanaz gave her life in order to give life.”
A nurse who took care of Sanaz (pronounced SAH’-na) Nezami said her brief stay, especially the high-tech way of communicating with family, was “eye-opening” for staff at Marquette General Hospital.
“The family was willing to trust us to know she wasn’t coming back,” Kim Grutt said.
Nezami’s arrival in Michigan was part of a personal odyssey that took her from Iran to Turkey to the U.S. in just months. In August, she married Nima Nassiri in Turkey and lived with him temporarily in the Los Angeles area, where he was born and raised. Her sister said the two met over the Internet.
Nezami, a native of Tehran, had a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s in French translation. She wanted a doctorate degree in environmental engineering and settled on Michigan Tech in Houghton, about 550 miles northwest of Detroit.
The newlyweds drove their Toyota from California and found a rental home in November in Dollar Bay, a small town near campus. Nezami was familiar with cold winters in Iran, but folks in her new community still liked to remind her about what to expect on the Keweenaw Peninsula in northern Michigan’s Lake Superior.
“The bank clerk told her the snow will fall until April,” her sister said.
Nezami planned to take her first classes after the holidays. Meanwhile, she stayed in touch with family through email, text message and video. On Dec. 7, she asked her sister to proofread some English-to-Persian translation she was doing on the side.
“I was shocked,” Sara Nezami said. “Sanaz was a very precise girl, but she omitted some lines. I asked, ‘Are you OK?’ She told me there was no problem.”
The next day Sanaz Nezami was rushed to a hospital with severe head injuries and was transferred 100 miles to Marquette General. Police believe she was assaulted by her husband, who has been charged with second-degree murder. His attorney, David Gemignani, declined to comment.
“Her brain was so swollen and so damaged, there was no longer any blood flow,” explained Gail Brandly, who supervises nurses at Marquette General.
There were other problems, too. No one knew anything about Nezami, so Brandly ran her name through Google. Suddenly, the stranger who couldn’t speak for herself was coming alive through a resume posted online.
Nezami was fluent in French, English and Persian. She volunteered to cook for charities. As a teen, she wrote for youth newspapers and magazines and won first place in a 2001 literature competition with an essay on “friendships and the differences between us.”
After about 24 hours, the hospital reached relatives in Iran. Immediate travel to the U.S. was impractical due to visa requirements, so a laptop was set up so the family could see Nezami on life support and talk to nurses and doctors over Yahoo Messenger.
“It isn’t something we’ve done in the past. It’s not every day we’re dealing with family members so far-flung,” said Dave Edwards, spokesman for the hospital.
In Tehran, relatives drifted in and out of the living room at Nezami’s father’s home to watch what was unfolding in Michigan.
“We cried a lot,” her sister said. “We prayed in Persian, Arabic and English. The nurses told us Sanaz had brain damage — her brain was dead.”
At one point, Grutt, the nurse, was asked to stroke Nezami’s head and kiss her forehead.
“They wanted us to do things for Sanaz that they would have done,” Grutt said. “They said, ‘Let her know we love her. We’re here.’ I felt completely comfortable.”
Nezami died on Dec. 9, but her critical organs — heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas and small intestine — could be used by others. With the family’s consent, they were removed and transplanted to seven people in five states. No other details were released.
“The family was very clear. They want Americans to know Sanaz loved America,” said Wendy Mardak of UW-Organ and Tissue Donation in Madison, Wis., a regional organ donation agency.
Nezami was buried Dec. 18 in Marquette’s Park Cemetery. As a light snow fell, the hospital’s chaplain, the Rev. Leon Jarvis, read Muslim prayers over the casket while about 20 people, mostly nurses and others who cared for her, watched.
Jarvis, an Episcopal priest, said he pledged to Nezami’s father that “as long as I draw breath and live in this city, your daughter will never be alone.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so quickly adopted by so many,” Jarvis said. “Considering our season right now, this was an incredible gift by Sanaz, but also a gift from the community as well. It’s realizing the goodness of humanity and what people can do in a real cynical time.”
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