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Nephrologist / Global Health Trailblazer Dr. Asghar Rastegar Retiring July 1

June 24, 2020
by Julie Parry

Asghar Rastegar, MD, director, Office of Global Health and professor of medicine (nephrology) has announced his retirement, effective July 1.

“If you look at the history of my life, I have always had an internal clock that tells me when it’s the right time to do something different. I really began thinking about retirement a year ago, but I wanted to make sure that Dr. [Tracy] Rabin was promoted, and she was promoted this year, so it really worked out to be the right time. The question that always comes to my mind-is there someone else who could do the job better than I can? When I stepped down from chief of medicine at the VA or as associate chair, that was the question that I responded to. And when I look back, and they were all right decisions. There is a time when you have done what you can do and someone else must step in and take it to a different level,” explained Rastegar.

Department Chair Gary V. Desir, MD, Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine and Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity reflected on Rastegar’s impact.

“Asghar and I have had a very long mentor/mentee relationship. What is remarkable about him is that he is very principled but also very diplomatic,” said Desir. “I always felt like he had this extraordinary ability to get things done under the most difficult circumstances. He is an extraordinary master clinician, and most importantly, a transformative leader.”

Rastegar was imprisoned for a brief period in 1982 during his time serving as the Exudative Chair of the Department of Medicine at Shiraz University School of Medicine. In his November 2019 Leadership in Biomedicine Series talk, “Seeking Knowledge to Serve Others,” Rastegar shared his life story.

“There are many events that happened in my life that were totally accidental. These events gave me the opportunity to grow and at the same time challenged me to develop core beliefs that have served me in my work,” he said.

Rastegar was born in Shiraz, Iran. He left his home country to attend Baylor University in Waco, Texas but only spent one semester there due to its campus segregation. He fell in love with the University of Wisconsin-Madison from a New York Times Magazine supplement he had seen and earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from University of Wisconsin.

He completed his internship, residency, and fellowship in nephrology at the Hospital for the University of Pennsylvania, where he also served as a chief resident, Although he planned to become a cardiologist, Rastegar met a “charismatic young nephrologist” Donna McCurdy at UPenn, which he credits with “making him fall in love with nephrology.” After completing this chief resident year, Rastegar, his wife Faye, and his children headed back to Iran.

“The events that I am going to talk about are the events that led me to focus a part of my work on enhancing the quality of institutions to training healthcare workers, including physicians, to serve the community in which they lived, so that became the ground in which I walked,” explained Rastegar.

Rastegar revamped the residency program at Shiraz University School of Medicine (formerly Pahlavi University) to increase collaboration between institutions to help retain top physicians in Shiraz. He recruited former UPenn colleagues, Frank Bia, MD, MPH, and Margaret Bia, MD, to come to Iran and teach.

“Frank and I spent three months in Iran with Asghar, living and teaching his residents. We got very close to his wife and his family,” recalled Margaret Bia.

In 1977, he took a year sabbatical to come to Yale School of Medicine (YSM) and focus on nephrology. When he returned to Iran, the Iranian Revolution had begun. All universities were closed in April of 1980 and ‘cleansing’ of faculty and students who were thought to be “non-Islamic” was underway.

“I survived the first wave of cleansing, but soon it was clear that was not going to be the case,” explained Rastegar. He was arrested, along with two colleagues in December of 1981. They were tried in court and the case dismissed, but the trio were also dismissed from the medical school.

He relocated to Tehran but it became clear that he and his family had to leave the country. They left the next year and moved to Connecticut where Rastegar began a short stint at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System (VACHS). He left and spent a year at the University of Colorado Health Science Center, before being offered the chief, Medical Service job back at the VACHS in West Haven.

While back in Connecticut, Rastegar partnered with Majid Sadigh, MD, a colleague from Shiraz, to create programs modeled after his Shiraz experience to educate medical residents and faculty in Russia, Uganda, and Rwanda. The collaborations would expand later to South Africa, Liberia, and Colombia.

In 1981, Frank Bia and Michele Barry, MD, started a unique program of international health electives. and in 2001 obtained support from Johnson & Johnson Foundation, creating the J&J Global Health Scholars Program. With recruitment of Barry by Stanford in 2010, the program became a joint program, and became known as the Yale/Stanford J&J Global Health Scholar Program. Rastegar established the Office of Global Health within the Department of Internal Medicine in 2009, which he directed and became the co-director of the Yale-Stanford J&J Global Health Scholar Program.

“Our paths kept intertwining,” said Margaret Bia. “Asghar is a class act. He is an incredible person.”

Rastegar’s career accolades are numerous. Highlights include his 1988 win of the Francis Gilman Blake Award, as the most outstanding teacher of Medical Sciences. The following year, he was the first winner of The Charles W. Bohmfalk Teaching Prize, one of YSM’s highest faculty awards. In 2003, he won the Thornton Award for Excellence in Teaching, American College of Physicians, CT Chapter. After leaving his position at the VACHS, an award was named after him to be given to the best teacher in medical service at the VA Hospital. He is a member of the American Society of Nephrology, International Society of Nephrology, a fellow of the American College of Physicians, Association of Program Directors of Internal Medicine, Association of American Medical Colleges, National Kidney Foundation, and the Consortium of Universities for Global Health.

In his November 2019 talk, he advised the audiences to take risks with your life and commit yourself to a career that gives meaning to your life.

“I have had many mentors and many wonderful colleagues that have had impact on my life. I am very thankful to every one of them, especially my life-long mentor Dr. Sam Thier, for what they have done to give me the opportunity to live a life that I am very proud of,” Rastegar said.

Tracy Rabin, MD, SM, has been named director of the Office of Global Health. She worked alongside of Rastegar in the assistant and associate director roles for nine years. Sheela Shenoi, MD, MPH, will move into the associate director position. Andre Sofair, MD, MPH, will assume Rastegar’s role as the site director of our collaboration with the University of Rwanda College of Health Sciences.

“It has been a true privilege to have Dr. Rastegar as a role model and mentor. His strong moral compass and focus on ensuring equity and bidirectional benefit in relationships with global partners, have been at the heart of all of the work of the Office of Global Health. And I look forward to maintaining these core values as we continue in our mission to work together with partners to confront the disparities in global health (both domestically and internationally) through research, education and health services capacity building,” said Rabin.

“Dr. Rastegar leaves an unparallel legacy at Yale of commitment to global health that has inspired legions of U.S.-based trainees and faculty but also a commitment to international capacity building that has been critical to the development of a multitude of resource-limited settings. I can only hope to have as impactful a career as he has,” said Shenoi.

While Rastegar is retiring from his role as full-time faculty, he has been appointed as a Senior Research Scientist to continue as the primary investigator on the HRSA grant that provides health workforce training in Liberia, and consult on a project in Rwanda. He will also continue to teach renal physiology to fellows at YSM.

“Even though most people know him as Director of Global Health, he is one of our most esteemed clinicians in nephrology and in medicine. I will miss him,” said Desir.

Rastegar is looking forward to retirement, working on his hobbies and spending time with Faye, his children and grandchildren. “I love when people say, ‘When I retire, I plan to travel and read many books,’” said Rastegar. “I have done all my traveling. I have read many, many books. I will continue to do some of that. One of my hobbies is cooking. I have been trying to learn how to make sourdough bread, but have been struggling with the science of sourdough. But I am going to finally learn how to do that.”

“I have always felt that there are different stages of life and you should never look back and say, ‘If I were 20 again, I would do the following.’ To think back this way is actually a sign of failure. I don’t guess what life holds for me now. There is potential for joy in each stage of life.”

The Department of Internal Medicine’s Office of Global Health mission is to confront the disparities in global health through research, education, and health services in partnership with institutions serving resource-limited communities around the world. To learn more about their work, visit Office of Global Health. To watch Rastegar’s “Seeking Knowledge to Serve Others,” visit Misc. Video Presentations.

Submitted by Julie Parry on June 24, 2020