An eye for art, a heart for healing: Vancouver doctor taps into passion for wildlife photography to help heal others

VANCOUVER — If you want to make Dr. Mehrdad Shojaei smile, ask the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center doctor about his photography adventures inside the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

“I could feel it right away, as soon as I crossed the bridge,” Shojaei says of the refuge’s peaceful, restorative effects. “Beautiful nature … and so many birds! I told the other doctors at the hospital, ‘If you can’t find me, that’s where I’ll be.’”

Dr. Mehrdad Shojaei, a hospitalist at the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, reflects on his use of fine art photography to help heal patients and even complete strangers, at the Compass Coffee Roasting in downtown Vancouver on Fri., March 3. Photo by Kelly Moyer
Dr. Mehrdad Shojaei, a hospitalist at the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, reflects on his use of fine art photography to help heal patients and even complete strangers, at the Compass Coffee Roasting in downtown Vancouver on Fri., March 3. Photo by Kelly Moyer

A lifelong photography buff who had temporarily given up his artistic hobby in favor of the neverending study-work-catnap-study-work cycle that turns a regular guy into a medical doctor, Shojaei says the refuge reignited his passion for photography. Within no time, he had purchased a digital Nikon camera and started reading everything he could find about how to be a better wildlife photographer.

Today, the Vancouver doctor splits his time among his work as a hospitalist, caring for emergency room patients who need extended stays inside the Salmon Creek hospital; his family, which includes his wife, Haide, an ultrasound technician, and the couple’s 3-year-old son Rayan; and the photography passion that has bloomed into quite a bit more than a simple, pleasurable pastime.

At the March 3 Camas First Friday celebration, Camas Gallery showcased several of Shojaei’s wildlife photographs, pointing out the connection between art, nature and healing. The doctor has won awards for his photos, been highlighted in a Clark County-specific photography book and was recently featured a Jadid Online article discussing his artistic process.

But Shojaei says he wanted his progress as a photographer to blend with his career as a health professional.

“One day, I said to myself, ‘You are a doctor, treating patients. Why don’t you use this (art) to help heal people?’” Shojaei says.

And so his journey into the healing powers of art began in earnest. But first, Shojaei would discover how much his own health depended on living a more creative life.

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(Click photos to view slideshow)

Wildlife photography by Vancouver Dr. Mehrdad Shojaei, taken at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of Mehrdad Shojaei

In 2010, when Shojaei first stumbled upon the Ridgefield wildlife refuge, he was not yet married to Haide, whom his met at a medical convention in Texas and married in 2012, and his son was still several years from being a twinkle in his father’s eye. Back then, the Vancouver doctor was working long shifts at the Salmon Creek hospital, but liked to explore his new community, often looking up green spaces on Google maps to find respite from the day-to-day stress of his job. The refuge, with its solitude and abundance of wildlife, especially appealed to him.

“I could feel the difference in myself when I was out there,” he says of the refuge. Much like the healing garden that Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center is building to help patients find comfort and respite from the inside of the sterile, brightly lit hospital, Shojaei says that after working long shifts, several days in a row, he craved the natural world of the refuge with its fresh air, abundance of stunning wildlife photography opportunities.

“It really is healing,” he says of being in nature by yourself.

Shojaei had moved to the area three years before he found the refuge and had already practiced medicine for nearly 15 years before coming to the Pacific Northwest in 2007, having trained and practiced as a medical doctor in his home country of Iran before moving to New York City to train as a hospitalist — a physician who works exclusively with patients requiring in-hospital stays after a trip to the emergency room —  at the prestigious Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

A dedicated doctor, Shojaei says he was always looking for ways to help his patients. In particular, he wanted to find a way to help them transition from being a patient inside the hospital to a fully functioning and healthy person outside the hospital.  

“What happens when people come into the hospital? First, we steal their clothes,” Shojaei says, grinning. “And then we give them a role. They are patients. And a lot of people keep that patient role when they have been recovered and it’s time for them to go back to daily life.”

Along with the hospital’s programs that engage patients in art, music and pet therapy, Shojaei says he often uses a shared love of photography and art in all forms to engage his patients — and help them make that transition from patient to person again.

His artwork has also played a part in healing complete strangers. This part of Shojaei’s story started in a Vancouver area coffee shop just a few years ago, when he saw a flyer advertising a fundraiser for a Clark County boy who needed a lung transplant.

“I offered to donate two of my photographs to help raise money for his care,” Shojaei says.

A few months later, after the boy found a lung and had healed from his transplant, the child’s mother called Shojaei to thank him for his donation and update him on her son’s care. The child had gone from lying prone in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, to walking the whole way to his school.

“That changed me,” Shojaei says. “I can’t even explain the feeling I felt hearing this. He wasn’t even my patient, but just hearing from the mother, that he was walking … it just felt so good.”

Since then, Shojaei has been on the hunt for other medical fundraisers that might be interested in a fine art donation. He recently gave framed photographs to a silent auction to help raise money for the Kyla McCullough Gift Fund, a Portland nonprofit that raises money to help the families of children living with cancer.

The Vancouver doctor, who lives with his wife and young son in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood, even started his own website to reach out to other medical care fundraisers that might benefit from a donation of fine art. Eventually, Shojaei says, he would love to start a network of doctors and health practitioners who also create art in their spare time to build a national coalition of artist-healers who can donate artwork to help others heal.

First, though, he wants to share his love of nature, wildlife and photography with the local community and to continue to donate his framed photographs to local and regional medical-related fundraisers. Soon, readers of the magazine Prune Hill Living, a local publication out of Camas, will be treated to a monthly photograph and story from Shojaei about the animals he sees during his trips to the Ridgefield refuge.

Others hoping to see his artwork up close, can visit the Camas Gallery throughout the month of March, at 408 N.E. 4th Ave., in historic downtown Camas. For more information about the doctor, his artwork and his assistance with medical fundraisers, visit Shojaei’s website

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