Tragic death saves lives

MARQUETTE – The tragic death of a young woman earlier this month has brought life to seven others around the country – some of whom are children – after the woman’s family in Iran gave permission to Marquette General Hospital to donate her organs.

Sanaz Nezami, 27, died Dec. 12 at the MGH intensive care unit due to head trauma allegedly resulting from a domestic assault by her husband, 34-year-old Nima Nassiri, on Dec. 8.

Nezami was considered a rare “ideal donor” and five surgical teams from four states converged on Marquette General where, incredibly, they were able to successfully recover her heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys and intestines for donation. Because of her small stature, some of her organs have gone to save the lives of children – including her heart, which was transplanted in a 12-year-old girl.

Sanaz (pronounced SAH-nah) had only in recent weeks moved from Tehran, Iran to Dollar Bay in Houghton County with Nassiri to begin a doctorate program in Environmental Engineering at Michigan Tech University next semester. After the alleged assault, Sanaz was taken to Portage Health Hospital in Hancock for her injuries. From there, she was transported to Marquette General early on Dec. 9, where extensive testing established that she had suffered massive head trauma which left her with virtually no brain activity.

“When she arrived here, her injuries were so extensive … her brain was so damaged that she no longer had blood flow to her brain,” said Gail Brandly, organ donation liaison at MGH. “Unfortunately that means that she’s brain dead and that’s irreversible.”

Sanaz’s recent arrival in the States gave the Houghton County Sheriff’s Office the challenge of informing her family back in Iran about what had happened.

The U.S. no longer has an embassy in Iran so police were attempting to coordinate with diplomats at the Pakistani embassy in Tehran to locate Sanaz’s family and give them the news in person. The doctors and nurses at Marquette General realized that this could take days, if not longer.

What happened next can be only a testament to the power of the Internet, and to the compassion of the registered nurses in Marquette General’s ICU: Brandly googled Sanaz, discovered her resume – which listed a phone number – and she and the RNs in the ICU decided to try to contact Sanaz’s family that way.

“If a person is going to be able to be an organ donor, and is brain dead, you can only maintain them for so long,” Brandly said. “We wanted, one, for the family to be able to see her – because I wouldn’t be able to accept the death of a family member unless I saw it. And two, we wanted to preserve the ability to donate organs.”

The resume also conveyed something else to the nurses: just how special the woman in their care was.

Looking at her resume, Brandly said she saw that Sanaz was “well-educated, she’s into the environment, she’s into helping people. We knew looking at that from the very moment that she would want to be a donor. Her whole life was about helping people.”

Sanaz’s credentials are impressive. She had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French translation. Indeed, she spoke Farsi, French and English fluently, and her C.V. lists “basic knowledge in Spanish, German, Arabic and a little Swahili” as well.

She also had a bachelor’s in Environmental Health Engineering, which she planned to continue with MTU’s PhD program.

“She was so studious, hard-working,” Sanaz’s older sister, Sara, said Friday over the phone from Tehran. “You know when you saw her C.V., you can see that all her life she was studying. Of course, when she came to America, she wanted to be ‘the cream of the crop.’ She wanted to be the best.”

Sara said Sanaz also did a lot of charity work for the mentally challenged, the sick and the homeless. Though she was a Muslim, she also was part of a Christian congregation and believed that most of the differences between Christians and Muslims were superficial.

“She said, ‘God is the same – no difference between the people of the world,'” Sara said. “Maybe Christian people and Muslim people, there are no differences between them. People are the same, God is the same.”

Sara said that Sanaz wanted to further her education not for own sake, or for wealth or success, but to serve God and humanity.

“If you are becoming knowledgable, you’re becoming knowledgable for the God-serving, not just because of yourself,” Sara said. “Being selfish is not important. Some people are studying because of themselves, to pocket money. Pocketing money was not important for Sanaz. She wanted to serve people and humanity.”

With the phone number from the C.V., the nurses were able to reach Sanaz’s family in Terhan and, through a Farsi translator at first, relayed the terrible news. Not only had their daughter, sister, niece been hurt, but she was, as a practical matter, already gone.

“Brain death is hard enough to explain to an American face to face, let alone in Farsi,” Brandly said. She said that the family kept asking, “Couldn’t there be a miracle? Couldn’t Sanaz recover?”

Brandly said, “We feel like the miracle was her.”

Over the next couple of days, something miraculous did happen. Cherlynn Erickson, one of the RNs in the ICU, had the idea of coordinating a video chat with the family, allowing them to see Sanaz, to witness the care she was receiving and, eventually, to say their goodbyes. It quickly became apparent to the nurses how close-knit and loving the Nezami family was.

“We had them basically in the room almost the whole time on the video messenger,” Brandly said. As the nurses were going about their duties, tending to Sanaz, the family began making requests that Erickson and RNs Alycia Davidson and Kim Grutt, do little things, like stroke Sanaz’s hair, or kiss her forehead. The nurses became an extension of the family, a proxy for blood relatives half a world away.

“That’s the special thing about the group of people that we have here, is that they just do that naturally,” Brandly said. “Everyone was very compelled to be there for her. We felt that she was this tiny little innocent person that had no one there, so we were just going to be that family.”

“It’s just part of nursing. You’re just compassionate as a person,” Erickson said.

“The two days I had her, we would set up the camera by the bedside, and it would be on for three or four hours, and they would pray and cry and talk to her in Farsi and talk to her in English, and there were maybe six or seven people who were rotating out in front of the computer,” Davidson said.

After Sanaz passed, Marquette General asked one of their resident doctors, a Muslim, to wash and shroud Sanaz’s body according to Islamic custom. Working with the nurses, Marquette’s Park Cemetery agreed to designate a section for Muslims so that Sanaz could be interred there. A $5,000 payment from a state crime victim fund and cooperation from Fassbender Funeral Home of Marquette ensured that she was given the burial service she deserved, with the head of the casket facing the Islamic holy site Mecca and the proper prayers recited in English.

Sara said she thinks Sanaz would be happy to have helped so many people with such incredible gifts.

“Some people spend money in charity for the other people,” she said. “But Sanaz gave life, (she gave) life to those seven other people.

Sara talked about how people from Dollar Bay as well as Marquette have reached out to her and her family, and who have helped in any way they could. “And, of course, I want to thank the nurses and the doctors,” she said. “They cooperated a lot with us. They were so kind. They did everything.”

She also has one request that her new friends at Marquette General will try to help her with: connecting with those who received Sanaz’s organs.

“I want American people to help me to get in touch with those seven people who are carrying my sister’s body organs,” Sara said. “I want to be in touch with my new brothers and sisters. Because my daddy wants to hear Sanaz’s heartbeat. He wants to talk to those people.”

To properly convey just how special a person Sanaz was, perhaps it’s best to let her speak for herself. In a Facebook note dated Dec. 22, 2011, titled, “don’t give up,” Sanaz wrote: “One of our problems is that in our modern, instantaneous society we tend to jump from one thing to another … and that’s why we need God’s help. You see, God never gets in a hurry. He never quits or runs out of patience. He will deal with us about one particular thing, and then He will let us rest for a while – but not too long. Soon He will come back and begin to work on something else. He will continue until, one by one, our knots are all untied.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is