Bita Esmaeli ’84 had more to worry about than dates and grades during her teen years. Because of the turbulent atmosphere at home in Iran, her parents sent her to boarding school in Memphis. She boarded at Lausanne Collegiate School, staying with the Alyce and Harry Burr family on weekends.
Two years later, when the culture shock had subsided, it was time for the flurried rush of college applications. Unfortunately, the political hostage situation in Iran had led to a moratorium on renewing Iranian student visas. “I was supposed to go back home, but I really wanted to stay, plus, my parents told me that it was not a good environment for me to go back to,” Esmaeli recalls.
With the help of the late Ed Jappe, Alyce Burr’s father, Esmaeli put together a legal case. But the legal route would take more time than she had. Jappe’s good family friend, Dr. Peyton Rhodes, interceded on her behalf and she was accepted to Southwestern. At the time, she only knew that Dr. Rhodes was the former president of Southwestern. Four years later, the college was named after him.
“He was an incredibly kind man and able to see that I had potential for academic success and needed help,” she says. “The single most important reason I went to Rhodes College was because of his kindness and willingness to give me this unique opportunity, despite the political risks. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I have done with my career and my life.”
At Rhodes, Esmaeli studied Biology, all the while perfecting her English. She joined the cross country team and the Student Activities Board. She also experienced the social side of college. Her senior year, she was a bartender at the Pub and became a little sister for SAE. She says, “Having spent my childhood and most of my teenage years in Tehran, sororities and fraternities were so foreign and bizarre to me, but I am glad I had a little taste of that and got to experience many aspects of American college life.”
Postgraduate studies brought a master’s degree in cell biology and physiology from the University of California-Santa Barbara, her medical degree from the University of Chicago Medical School, a residency in ophthalmology at the University of Michigan and a fellowship in ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Toronto.
Today, she is a professor of ophthalmology with a focus in orbital oncology and reconstructive surgery of the eye and periocular area. “I chose ophthalmology because I knew I wanted a surgical field but I didn’t necessarily want to do general surgery,” Esmaeli explains. “Ophthalmology is a fascinating field of medicine. It’s a small area but deals with one of the most precious organs, and is incredibly detailed and relevant to many other medical disciplines. After all, the eye is not only the window to our souls but also the window to many aspects of health and well-being.”
Dr. Esmaeli spends much of her time treating cancer patients at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her surgical expertise involves removing cancers on the eyelid, ocular surface and in the orbit (the space around and behind the eye). She also performs reconstructive surgery to restore function and cosmesis in cancer patients. In addition, she is the fellowship program director for the ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery fellowship at M. D. Anderson. In this role, she teaches fellows, residents and medical students. She also conducts clinical and translational research and travels for lectureships and teaching engagements throughout the world.
“I love the multifaceted qualities of my profession,” she says. “It is a privilege to treat patients with complex and challenging problems, teach residents and fellows and be able to contribute to my field by making novel observations and doing research. Cancer is still a disease for which there are no easy cures, but early detection of cancers in the eye area can lead to timely interventions and saving of function and appearance, and potentially a surgical cure.”
Of her profession Esmaeli says, “Being able to make a real difference in my patients’ lives is the most unique and meaningful contribution I can make to humanity and to my sense of growth as a human being.”
Even so, “I am proud of my professional accomplishments, but I have to say I am most proud of being a mom!” She lives in Houston with her son Brett, an honor roll student at St John’s high school, where he plays golf and soccer, and is an avid x-box gamer.
By: Chelsea Hennessy ’11