How A Dying Iranian Woman Became Family To UP Nurses
By John Carlisle
She was dead. Her body just didn't know it yet.
Sanaz Nezami lay in the intensive care unit of Marquette General Hospital, hooked up to a ventilator, eyes half-open and vacant, after a beating that left her brain so swollen it wiped out who she was.
Nobody at the hospital knew anything about her other than her name, that she'd arrived at the emergency room brain-dead that December night, and that her new husband was being questioned by police about how she got that way.
Worst of all, nobody knew how to find her family to tell them. Time was short. The hospital could keep her on life support for only so long.
"We wanted to keep her alive, her body, her heart beating long enough, so that her family would be able to say good-bye to her," said Gail Brandly, the hospital's 55-year-old supervisor. "We knew that it was such a tragic situation, that the family probably wouldn't be able to cope without saying good-bye."
The nurses did some amateur detective work, learned who Nezami was and found out that her family lived halfway across the world in Iran, oblivious to what happened to their daughter.
They picked up a phone, dialed a long number, and suddenly they found themselves racing against the clock in a global search on behalf of someone they never got to know. Before it was over, their efforts brought together two very different groups of people — her real family in Iran and the small group of nurses from an Upper Peninsula town who wound up adopting her in both life and in death.
"She was a very, very tiny girl," Brandly said of Nezami, who was barely 5 feet tall and thin. "She looked like a small child that needed someone to protect her. That's what was going through my mind."
A studious 'live wire'
Nezami was so smart, everyone said. Two years ago, she was a 27-year-old Iranian immersed in studies in her hometown of Tehran, trying to earn degrees in everything.
"She was a very live wire, very active girl," said Sara Nezami, 32, her older sister, who lives in Tehran. "Even from childhood she was very studious. All her teachers, even in kindergarten, said she was very talented."
Sanaz Nezami received bachelor's degrees in French and in environmental engineering and planned to pursue more. She learned to speak five languages and created her own home business offering her services translating anything from catalogs and economic texts to people's poems.
"You will find my translations extremely accurate with five-star quality," she bragged on her résumé.
Then she met some guy online, an American born to Iranian parents in California but living in Turkey, named Nimi Nassiri.
Nezami absolutely fell for the chubby, ponytailed, 34-year-old computer engineer. Her family was baffled.
"He hasn't got anything special, hasn't done anything special," Sara Nezami said. The family flew out to Turkey to meet him and his family, and weren't impressed. "You can see his character," Sara said. "All the time we didn't believe this guy. He's a fake man."
Yet somehow Nassiri convinced Sanaz to marry him against her family's wishes and move to the U.S. Of course, the first thing she did when they arrived in his hometown of Los Angeles was search for another university to attend, and she found a degree program at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, in Michigan's faraway Upper Peninsula, where she planned to pursue a master's in environmental engineering.
The newlyweds found a little apartment in tiny Dollar Bay, just across the lake from the university, and drove from California to move there in November 2013.
Her new life didn't last long.
On Dec. 8, 2013, Sanaz Nezami called 911 and told the operator her husband had beaten her and she was having trouble walking. Then she collapsed, and her husband hung up the phone. The operator called back. Her husband answered. He said Sanaz was fine. In fact, he said, she was sleeping.
They rushed an ambulance over.
Nassiri admitted to police detectives that he and his wife had an argument, and that he finished the dispute by slamming her head repeatedly into the floor.
He was arrested and charged with domestic assault.
Sanaz was taken, unconscious and covered in bruises, to a Houghton hospital, then transferred by ambulance to Marquette General Hospital. She never woke up again.
Search for family
Brandly's phone rang early the next morning. Besides being the hospital supervisor, she's also its organ donation liaison. This unknown patient might be a good candidate for organ donation, she was told.
But they had to find the family first. Without their consent, they would not be able to use her organs. And if they could, at least something good could come from this horrible situation.
The police didn't help much, other than to suggest sending a Pakistani diplomat to Tehran to locate the family and break the news. With no U.S. Embassy in Iran, that was the next best choice. But that could take days, or weeks.
Brandly knew that Sanaz wouldn't last that long. So she and a few nurses in intensive care started doing their own research into this mystery woman.
They found her Facebook page, and though much of it was written in Farsi, they formed a sense of who she was from her photos. There was Sanaz sitting happily at a desk at school, doing what she loved the most. Sanaz standing behind a podium, giving a lecture. Sanaz and her shawl-draped friends, smiling.
And one of Sanaz and her new husband, arms around each other, just weeks before she died.
They found her résumé, too, and discovered that she loved learning languages, that she had several degrees, that she was sweet and ambitious and volunteered her time to help people with disabilities.
"She was absolutely beautiful," Brandly said. "She was a very educated young woman. She wanted to save the world, basically. And through her résumé and Facebook site, we came to know her."
The résumé also had an important lead — an old phone number for her. An online search showed it as being in Tehran.
The nurses dialed it.
Nightmare and reality
Half a world away, Yousef Nezami woke in the middle of the night in a panic. The 58-year-old civil engineer called his daughter Sara, who lives nearby in Tehran, waking her and her husband. He was frantic.
They rushed over to his house to find him lying on the floor. "I'm sure that something bad happened to her," he said. He was talking about Sanaz. "I had a bad nightmare, and I think that Nimi killed her."
Barely a year before this, his wife had died, struck by a teenager on a wayward motorcycle as she walked in downtown Tehran. Yousef was still having a tough time dealing with that. Sara assumed a dream like this had its roots in the lingering grief over the loss of his wife.
Yousef tried to call Sanaz's cell phone, he told them. Tried calling the couple's house phone, too. No answer on either.
Sara took him to the hospital, where he was looked at, treated for his soaring blood pressure, and sent home.
Later that morning, their phone rang. Sara answered. It was a nurse delivering the grim news that her sister lay dying in a town they never heard of, and wouldn't last much longer. Just like in the dream.
It destroyed her father, who hasn't worked since.
In the mad rush of these sudden events, the family realized they would never see her again, that they could never get visas and a flight to the Upper Peninsula in time.
Cherlynn Erickson, a 34-year-old intensive care nurse at the hospital, suggested that they try Skyping so the family could at least spend their daughter's last hours with them, even if only through a laptop screen. After several attempts at all hours of the night, it worked. The family's faces appeared on the hospital laptop.
Despite how bad Sanaz looked, the family could not bring themselves to accept what happened. "They were very emotional," Erickson said. "They kept saying, 'Sanaz, come back! Come back!' "
Sara admitted the family tried everything they could. "We prayed for my sister a lot through the webcam," she said. "And all my family and our friends — I mean, my aunts, my uncles, all came to my daddy's house. We cried a lot, we prayed a lot. There were things we said to her."
The family asked the nurses to do the things they really wanted to do but couldn't, like stroke their daughter's hair, or kiss her forehead.
It was wrenching for the nurses.
"It was really hard," Brandly said. "I mean, we were all in tears. We were really immersed in the whole process. You kind of become part of the family, and you're grieving with them because you're in the room with them."
The Nazami family slowly lost their hope for a miracle. Brandly told them that through her death, several other people could be given life if she donated her organs to them.
"I told them this could be the miracle," Brandly said.
Seven people got seven organs from Sanaz before she died. The nurses rarely get to find out who the recipients are. Medical privacy laws make it nearly impossible.
But one of them, a young woman who received Sanaz's lungs, got in touch with Brandly and asked whether she and her family could see the grave of the girl who saved her life. Brandly offered to escort her.
They wandered among the tombstones of Marquette's Park Cemetery but couldn't find the one for Sanaz. She'd been buried alone in an unused part of the cemetery, and her flat headstone was so small and nestled so low in the grass that it was hard to find.
The docent on duty at the cemetery that day finally showed them the grave, but not before noting that a number of people had been coming by, asking where it is. There was something about this little stranger dying alone in a foreign land that drew to her in death people she never knew in life.
So many, in fact, were moved by her story that a crowd-funding campaign begun by the nurses to buy Sanaz a decent headstone met its $5,000 goal in less than two months.
The local Rotary club in Marquette gave $850 after Erickson, one of the nurses who cared for Sanaz, went to their meeting and gave a speech that left her in tears throughout. Donations came from a local doctor, from the town's mayor, from students at Michigan Tech, and many people who chose to remain anonymous.
The nurses hope to have the new gravestone in place by summer. After that, nobody will have to ask where it is.
After Sanaz died, her husband, Nassiri, was charged with second-degree murder. In September 2014, after less than three days, a jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to 20-40 years in prison.
"She chose the wrong guy," Sara said of her sister. "It was the only mistake she ever made in her life, in her 27 years. And she gave her life for that mistake."
She said she hopes her family can come one day to the Upper Peninsula to see where Sanaz is buried, and meet the strangers who became a family for Sanaz in her last days.
"I feel like this was something I was chosen to do, that somebody had to do something for this family or they would never get over this," Brandly said.
"I'm a parent, and I know that it makes a huge difference when someone takes a personal interest in your family member to make sure they're taken care of. So that's all I was thinking. That someone needs to help them."
Articles in this issue:
- The Angelina Jolie Wave
- How A Dying Iranian Woman Became Family To UP Nurses
- How Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller Lost 100 Pounds In 100 Days, Without Smoke and Mirrors
- Coping Methods To Help Nurses Find Peace At Work
- Mississippi Health Officials Warn About Increasing Cases Of Spice, Hospitalization
- N.C. APNs Want More Autonomy, And Might Get It Soon
- Washington Girl With Leukemia Saved With Stem Cells From Umbilical Cord
- Focus on Quality: Preparing Nurse Leaders to Improve Patient Care
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