Guatemala: The Foundation for Craniofacial Surgery

Dr. Reza Jarrahy

A son of Iranian immigrants, Dr. Reza Jarrahy was born and raised in New York City. His father’s career as an OB/GYN and his mother’s path as a nurse led him to pursue a career in medicine. First leaving New York to attend Stanford University, Dr. Jarrahy placed a large importance on sustaining humanism in the medical field. As his career brought him back to New York, then to Southern California, and ultimately to UCLA, Dr. Jarrahy never faltered in his pursuit of bringing a humanitarian approach to medicine. As Co-Director of UCLA’s Pediatric Craniofacial Clinic, he teaches students and conducts research in his lab to help advance the field of craniofacial surgery. With his large focus on global health, Dr. Jarrahy finds it extremely rewarding to travel overseas to perform pro bono reconstructive surgeries on children in the developing world without access to basic medical and surgical care. These are children with devastating facial deformities who lack the resources to obtain surgical correction of their birth defects, and who therefore often grow up in isolation. Dr. Jarrahy also participates in community service projects in the impoverished communities he serves as a surgeon, including building clean cook stoves in homes without heat, gas, or electricity.



Dr. Jarrahy’s father faced common challenges that many immigrants experience: the need to find a job despite language barriers, limited starting capital, and the challenge of supporting his wife and infant son who accompanied him on his journey to America. Through hard work and determination, he repeated the training he had completed in Iran as an obstetrician and gynecologist, allowing him to build a career dedicated to women and children’s health in the United States. His commitment to the underserved population of his community in New York City inspired the young Reza Jarrahy to be community-minded. On his way home from school, Reza would often take the subway to his father’s office to see his father work, and remembers being moved by the way that his father became such a welcome member of his patients’ families. Described as a “strong, silent type of guy,” Reza’s father stressed the importance of deriving satisfaction from making an impact in the lives of his patients and their families. His commitment to a principled medical practice with a priority on morals and ethics over profit and personal gain influenced Reza and shaped his philanthropy and his approach to healthcare delivery.


Today, Reza incorporates the values his father taught him and hopes to inspire other medical professionals to truly care about the people they serve, not just the business aspects of medicine. He learned from his father the tremendous sense of fulfillment that comes with focusing on people, honoring them as individuals, and building meaningful relationships with them. “You realize you’re part of a larger community,” he says.



When traveling on humanitarian trips, Dr. Jarrahy always dedicates time to build stoves for families in impoverished communities. The majority of the homes Dr. Jarrahy visits are made of cinder block walls, tin roofs, dirt floors, and have open fires in the enclosed living spaces that serve as sources of heat where the families cook their meals. The continuous exposure to smoke and ash negatively impacts all members of the family, from children who are exposed to noxious smoke inhalation from the moment they are born, to the women who toil to carry the large and burdensome bundles of wood needed to keep the open fires burning, to the family elders who are susceptible to getting severely burned should they stumble near the flames. Additionally, people who receive these stoves are able to cut fuel costs from nearly $2 each day for wood to only $0.30. The 85% reduction in fuel cost and decreased amount of time spent tending the fire provide the opportunity for individuals to invest more time, effort, and financial resources in other necessities. (For more information on clean cook stoves see here)


On his most recent trip, Dr. Jarrahy and other volunteers built a stove for a family that was dependent on such an open flame for heating and cooking. When they showed the family matriarch how to use the stove, she grabbed the pot of boiling corn that was previously hanging over the flame and placed it on her new stove, and she began to weep. When asked why she was crying, the woman expressed that this would be the first time in her life that she and her family would not be eating food that tasted of ash and smoke.


As a full-time faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Dr. Jarrahy is grateful for the opportunities available to him because of his university affiliation. To him, UCLA is a wonderful place to engage in a dialogue about service because UCLA plays such an important role in the community that surrounds it. When his children attended the UCLA Lab School, Dr. Jarrahy was asked to serve on the school’s Board of Advisors. The Chairman of the Board tasked him with being the inaugural chair of the Board’s Outreach Committee and increasing the Lab School’s footprint on the larger UCLA campus. One of the first steps he took in this role was to meet with then-Director of the UCLA Volunteer Center, Antoinette Mongelli. Together, the two of them introduced the Lab School to more service opportunities, and now the Lab School is a frequent project site for UCLA Volunteer Day. Reza and Antoinette were particularly enthusiastic about exposing the littlest Bruins to the notion of community service, as well as reminding the incoming freshmen participating in Volunteer Day that service begins at home.



Dr. Jarrahy has encountered the same spirit of service and community building throughout campus. Through his affiliation with the Blum Center on Poverty and Health in Latin America, the Latin American Institute, and the UCLA Center for World Health, he feels privileged to be able to share his passion for service in the global health setting with like-minded individuals on every corner of campus. In particular, his work with Dr. Bonni Taub, Director of the Latin American Institute, has helped introduce the notion of “Surgical Anthropology,” an innovative approach to the delivery of healthcare in the developing world that incorporates a focus on cultural sensitivity into the global health setting.



Dr. Jarrahy is a nationally recognized leader in the field of pediatric craniofacial reconstructive plastic surgery. He particularly loves working with children and their families, and developing long-lasting relationships with them. On his trips to Central and South America, he mainly focuses on young patients with cleft lips and palates, repairing damage that could make it more difficult for these individuals to live everyday life. During one of his trips to Guatemala, Dr. Jarrahy operated on a 51-year-old woman who, due to limited financial resources, lived with a wide-open unrepaired cleft lip and palate her entire life. Due to her physical appearance, the woman had lived her entire existence in social isolation, and essentially became an indentured servant to her family who provided for her well into her adult years. After living like this for five decades, the woman’s daughter brought her to meet Dr. Jarrahy during one of his surgery trips. She underwent surgical correction of her cleft deformity in a procedure that took only about an hour to perform. Upon seeing her mother in the recovery room after surgery, the daughter broke down in tears of joy, thanking Dr. Jarrahy and the surgical team for what they did for her mother. The patient, however, sat on her gurney silent and without emotion. With her daughter translating, she explained that she was absolutely overwhelmed by the fact that the condition that plagued her entire life was now, after a single procedure, entirely in the past. She did not know how to process that fact, nor what its impact would be on her future, and was somewhat numbed by the reality of it all.


This is the type of impact that Dr. Jarrahy’s work has on people worldwide, and it is heartfelt stories like this that he enjoys sharing with others—particularly his medical students, residents, and fellows–to instill the importance of a humanistic approach to patient care in the next generation of physicians and surgeons. He wishes this humanitarianism and worldly perspective to be demonstrated by all citizens of the world, and encourages people to volunteer and engage with their communities. To Dr. Jarrahy, making the world a better place starts with individuals giving back to their communities, and it is this commitment to ethical and empathic treatment of others that earned Dr. Jarrahy a 2016 UCLA Health Teaching Humanism Award. This award is given annually to a group of UCLA faculty physicians who are nominated by their peers for their demonstrated commitment to teaching and their “outstanding contributions as role-models and teachers of patient-centric care.” The recipients of the award regularly gather to discuss ways they can teach medical students and residents to develop a more humanistic approach to medical care, which is not necessarily something that is emphasized in medical school curricula. Dr. Jarrahy says that this is one of the most humbling awards he has received in his entire life, and the one he holds in highest esteem. He feels that this recognition honors not only his commitment to humanitarian work, but also his father’s legacy of service, ethics, and morality, something Dr. Jarrahy strives to emulate every day in his professional and personal lives.


If you would like more information about Dr. Jarrahy’s service and the impact he has made, visit The Foundation for Craniofacial Surgery, a non-profit organization that supports children with craniofacial birth defects.

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