Dr. Mehdi Sadeghi was just a boy in 1979, when the Pahlavi Dynasty was overthrown in his native Iran, and in 1980, neighboring Iraq invaded, sparking a seven-year war that would leave an estimated half a million soldiers and an equal number of civilians dead.
Although his family home was located a few hundred miles from the border, where the heaviest fighting took place, they were frequently awakened during the night by the sounds of sirens blaring, and forced to seek safety in underground shelters.
“Airplanes would drop bombs, and the next day you could see damaged houses,” Sadeghi said. “We had to replace our windows a few times because of the blasts a few homes down. Until you are in middle of it and see what war does to cities, people and the future of a nation, you don't understand the devastating effects of war.”
At 16, Sadeghi, who dreamed of earning a college education and working in health care, volunteered with a medical team to assist in helping injured victims. But the odds were stacked against him being accepted to a university in Iran.
“I probably wouldn’t have gotten into universities in Iran – not because of my grades but because the competition is so hard,” he said. “A million people apply and 100,000 people get in. The top 10 percent of them probably got in because of who they know.”
Although education seemed like a pipe dream, military conscription was mandatory. This didn’t go over well with his father, a man with a sixth-grade education who had worked his way up in a Persian rug shop to becoming a successful importer-exporter.
Sadeghi’s father wanted his son to receive an education, so after some careful planning, Sadeghi escaped his war-torn homeland to the safety of an English-language boarding school in Switzerland. Although he had learned to read and write English in school back home, he learned to speak the language in Europe.
Dr. Medhi Sadeghi and his team at The Smile Center in East Memphis.
He dreamed of attending medical school in the United States, and was accepted to Northeastern University and traveled on a student visa to Boston. It would be four years before Sadeghi could travel home to Iran to see his family, which came with risks.
“My dad wasn’t a big fan of it because every time I left I had to reapply for a visa to get back in, and there was a chance they could say ‘no,’” he said. “I had a few friends who went back to Iran and couldn’t get a visa to come back, and they had to have all of their stuff shipped home. But it worked out well for me.”
Sadeghi graduated from Northeastern with bachelors’ degrees in biology and political science and was accepted to University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. But at the same time, he’d reconnected with an Iranian-American woman he’d known since childhood.
She had immigrated to the U.S. as a young child, settling with her family in Memphis, but she and Sedeghi saw each other each summer when they both traveled home to Iran to visiting family.
The couple became engaged, and Sadeghi was flying to Memphis once or twice a month to spend time with her. They decided it would be best for the couple to settle down in the Bluff City, where his wife, who today owns her own dental practice, was then studying at the University of Memphis.
He left Philadelphia with the hope of attending University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Dentistry. After living in Memphis for a year to meet residency requirements, Sadeghi was accepted to the school in 1994 and graduated in 1998.
He joined an established practice as an associate, but it wasn’t long before he began thinking about starting his own practice. Then September 11th happened and he feared for the safety of his family, with attacks on Middle Eastern immigrants perpetrated across the U.S. in its aftermath.
“My patients loved me and were so nice to me,” he said. “They called and were concerned, asking if anyone had said anything to me, whether I felt threatened. I started to get concerned about my family, but I started seeing the outpouring of love and support from people and decided we were going to stay here.”
In 2002, he opened The Smile Center, bringing with him two hygienists with whom he worked at his previous place of employment. Both women continue to work with him 19 years later.
Finding new patients was a challenge, but he started advertising and the phone started ringing.
“It’s been a great venture for me. It was scary in the beginning. I lost a lot of sleep and would wake up in the middle of the night, worried about what I was going to do the next day and how I was going to pay the bills,” he said. “You always worry, but I’ve been blessed and I have a great team. Without a great team, you can’t do it.”
Most new patients find The Smile Center through word of mouth, and Sadeghi’s known for his warmth, sense of humor and a chairside manner eases patients’ minds.
“Dr. Mehdi uses humor to make his patients feel comfortable, and I appreciate that,” said patient Deirdre Oglesby. “Laughter in the dental chair makes it much more bearable. My kids always say they would rather go to the dentist than the doctor because Dr. Mehdi makes it fun.”
Sadhegi, who’s also an associate professor of pediatric dentistry at his alma mater in Memphis, frequently attends classes and conferences to stay current on the latest dental technology. He’s a member of the Academy of General Dentistry, American Dental Association, Tennessee Dental Association, Memphis Dental Society, Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Iranian-American Medical Association and The Midsouth Interdisciplinary Study Club.
He’s passionate about giving back to the community that has embraced him, volunteering his services to patients at Church Health. He also co-funded Dentistry with a Heart, which brings together a dozen dentists one day each year to provide free dental care.
Sadeghi said one the Memphis health care community’s greatest strengths is its diversity.
“You go to Le Bonheur or St. Jude and the other hospitals and you have doctors who are black, brown, white, working together to help people,” he said.
Sadeghi said he has, however, over the past few months, increasingly endured anti-immigrant comments such as “go back to your own country,” particularly on social media. He said it’s hurtful, but most people in his community have shown him the kindness he’s come to expect from the average American.
“I’ve been here for almost 30 years and this has become my home,” Sadeghi said. “This country is the place that opened the door for me. It was hard to get a U.S. visa. I was scared when I went to the embassy for the first time – my hands were sweaty. But they opened the door and let me in and I got educated. I became a U.S. resident, then a citizen. Most people who come here are coming for a better life. This country has been giving them that opportunity a long time.”