TORONTO, Canada – Despite international recognition for inventing an artificial heart and a string of medical patents and glowing academic honors, Ottawa-based Tofy Mussivand says he still yearns for the life of his childhood, tending flock in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan, playing his flute and sleeping on the roof at night.
“A primitive life is still the dearest thing to me,” he says. “I love to think about being in the mountain with my herd, being close to nature, close to God. I had no limitations to my creativity and imagination. I had a freedom that formed my future.”
Mussivand’s humble yearnings are in sharp contrast to his academic and professional achievements: The 71-year-old Kurdish-Canadian is head of the Cardiovascular Devices Program at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, has authored more than 250 books and papers and is the recipient of numerous scientific awards.
I had no limitations to my creativity and imagination. I had a freedom that formed my future.
He is best known for inventing an Artificial Cardiac Pump.
Mussivand was born in the village of Varkaneh in Iran’s northwestern Hamedan province, where he was surrounded by Mount Alvand. As a child, he remembers playing “a tuneless flute,” while his sheep and goats would graze and frolic in the mountains.
The village only had a religious school (maktab), where he would sit on the rug with other children for lessons on reading the Koran and some Farsi. The school went only up to grade four.
Sleeping on the roofs at night, Tofy would gaze at the stars and ask his father question after question. “Baba, what are those bright spots on the sky? Who are we? What are we doing here?” Questions he says he continues to ask to this day.
Unable to satisfy his highly inquisitive son, Mussivand’s father finally took him to the city and registered him at school, where he earned his high school diploma and later went to the teacher’s college. He returned to the village and worked at the only school there, which his own father had built. “I was the teacher, the principal and the janitor,” he recalls.
Anyone can do what I have done,
His father was an Iraqi Kurd who valued his son’s curiosity and did all he could to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. His mother would take pity, seeing him up late at night, studying by the light of an oil lamp. Not knowing what else to do, she would hug him and shower him with infinite words of love.
The teaching job failed to satisfy Mussivand for long, and he left to study engineering at Tehran University. After earning his master’s degree in agricultural engineering, the young graduate wrote to the author of the textbooks he had liked best.
Recognizing the young man’s talent, the professor offered Mussivand admission and scholarship to study at the University of Alberta.
Recipient of numerous national and international awards, Mussivand says that his Kurdish heritage had a significant role in shaping him.
He still listens to old Kurdish songs and believes that, had the right environment been provided, more Kurdish masterminds would be recognized around the world.
“Anyone can do what I have done,” says the humble genius, who was selected as one of the top seven brightest men on the planet by an American program, but refused to participate. “All I have done is that I use every moment to learn something new. I never waste my time and I love to learn.”
His message for young Kurds is this: “Do not give up. When I fail, I don’t give up. Don’t allow failure in your life.”
Do not give up. When I fail, I don’t give up. Don’t allow failure in your life.
“Don’t say, ‘but I am poor and I am Kurdish with no opportunities,’” he advises. “I never let myself believe that lack of money would stop me; there was a time in my life that I didn’t have a piece of bread to eat, but that didn’t stop me.”
Mussivand does not only have an incredible brain. He did not only invent an incredible heart, he owns one. The man who has traveled the world and received numerous accolades, still remembers the stranger who shared a loaf of Kurdish bread with a shepherd boy beside a stream.
“The tastiest food I have ever eaten was half a loaf of a Kurdish bread that a stranger shared with me on the mountains, near a river. I never saw that man again and he may not even remember the shepherd kid he fed. But I have not forgotten his kindness.”
At 71, Mussivand starts work at his office at 5 or 6 in the morning and leaves at 6 pm for home, only to work some more. “My family thinks I am crazy because I don’t work for money. I don’t care for money. I earned a lot of it and lost much. I get excited to help people and have no expectations in return.”
“I don’t know what else to do if I don’t work. All I want to do is to reduce pain for human and extend life. At this age, I am still healthy and capable of working so I will carry on. I think my work is a gift from God.”
The God I believe in does not care if I don’t go to a mosque or a church.
But there was a time he did not always believe in the God he feels so close to now.
“I thought I was God. But one day at a medical class while discussing the complex ways the human skull is made and shaped, I shivered with recognition. I realized a super-organizer exists that I call God. When you look at the universe you see a billion pieces communicating with each other.”
Yet, Mussivand does not identify with any specific religion.
“I define my God differently. The God I believe in does not care if I don’t go to a mosque or a church. He does mind, though, if I lie to people or steal. God is our employer and we have to use the capabilities we have been given to do what we are supposed to do.”