by Sevak Hakobyan

“I had heard great things about Armenia Fund’s medical missions to Armenia, and always wanted to get involved in the program,” says Araz Melkonian, a family doctor. “I finally had the chance to do it this year, and, as part of the medical team from Adventist Health, got to witness the enormously positive impact of the mission.”

Dr. Melkonian’s family was originally from Van, Western Armenia. He was born in Basra, Iraq, and graduated from medical college in Baghdad. After practicing medicine there for four years, he moved to the United States, in 2012.

“Medical education was truly top-notch in Baghdad,” Dr. Melkonian recalls. “I worked as an oncologist. But there came a time when living in Iraq got to be too dangerous for ethnic minorities. And there were particular dangers facing doctors. If, for instance, a patient died of a heart attack, his family could take revenge on the physician.”

After moving to the US, Melkonian was recertified as a doctor. Currently he’s a third-year resident at Adventist Health Glendale. In 2018, he saw Armenia for the first time as he joined the fourth medical mission to Armenia, which once again was organized and implemented by Armenia Fund, in partnership with Adventist Health.

“All my life, I had heard about the land of my ancestors and dreamed of visiting it, but never had the chance to turn my dream into reality,” Dr. Melkonian says. “But in February 2018, right after obtaining a US passport, I decided to join Armenia Fund’s next medical mission to Armenia. And now, having worked alongside my volunteer team members and local colleagues at Noyemberyan Hospital, I’m not only impressed by the far-reaching benefits of the medical mission, but also deeply moved by the warmth shown by local colleagues and patients alike. For the first time in my life, I’ve known the joy of interacting with fellow Armenians in Armenia itself!”

Dr. Melkonian believes that the medical mission to Noyemberyan is a life-changing endeavor. He adds that he looks forward to participating in the next mission and discovering more about his Homeland.

Mary Kombazdjian is another family doctor who participated in the 2018 medical mission to Noyemberyan. Born into a Syrian-Armenian family, she says she has chosen to study medicine because she loves helping people, pregnant women in particular. “I was the only ‘crazy’ one in my family to want to become a doctor,” she says. “My parents kept wondering why I sought to enter the medical profession, told me it would burn me out. But, of course, I don’t at all regret my decision. The main focus of a family practitioner is to prevent illness — which is very important.”

During Armenia Fund’s week-long medical mission to Noyemberyan hospital in September 2018, Dr. Kombazdjian and her colleagues from Adventist Health provided numerous consultations, diagnoses, and treatments. In all, the volunteer physicians treated close to 2,650 patients from throughout the Tavush and Lori regions, providing them with a wide range of free medical services, including surgeries, as well as medications.

As part of the fourth medical mission to Noyemberyan since 2015, organized and implemented jointly by Armenia Fund and Adventist Health, the volunteer physicians from the US provided an extensive range of free medical services — including primary and specialty care, various tests and screenings, and surgeries — to close to 2,650 patients from throughout the Tavush and Lori regions. As significantly, the week-long mission continued to build the technical and professional capacities of Noyemberyan Hospital, as the volunteer doctors from Adventist Health provided their local colleagues with extensive training in the very latest medical techniques and methodologies, while Armenia Fund provided the hospital with large quantities of medical equipment, supplies, and pharmaceuticals donated by Adventist Health.

Also during the mission, the volunteer doctors from the US administered a total of 550 joint injections. Mrs. Zemfira was among the patients who received such an injection.

“I’ve suffered from leg pain for years,” she says. “What I didn’t know was that the pain goes away right after an injection. Had I known this, I would’ve gone in for treatment earlier. I got my first injection in 2017, at Noyemberyan Hospital, thanks to the doctors from America. I was pain-free for the next six months. And this year, after I heard that the volunteer doctors were coming back to Noyemberyan, I made sure to get an injection again.” She adds with a smile, “It was even better this time around: the injection didn’t hurt at all.”

Dr. Kombazdjian says she has achieved two important goals by participating in the medical mission: to see the Homeland, and to help fellow Armenians. “My family and I haven’t had much of a connection with Armenia,” she says. “My parents moved from Syria to the US, where I was born. My mother and father have been in Armenia only once, and I knew very little about my Homeland. But now, as I see patients in Noyemberyan and talk to them, I’m discovering many things about the country.”

Dr. Kombazdjian says she was moved by the gratitude shown to her by her patients, many of whom further expressed their appreciation by bringing home-made cookies and jams to her and other volunteer doctors, or inviting them to their homes. She adds that her first-ever visit to Armenia has been all the more fulfilling because of its altruistic — rather than merely touristic — objective.

Family practitioner Nare Stepanyan lived in several countries before she settled down in the US. She was born in Armenia, finished high school in Russia, and earned her medical degree in Germany. A California resident since 2014, she is now a third-year resident at Adventist Health Glendale. The story of how she decided to become a physician is tinged with sadness.

“My sister died when she was just three years old,” she says. “Medicine was not that advanced in Armenia at that time. That’s when I decided to become a doctor, driven by a desire to help people. It was this same desire that compelled me to join Armenia Fund’s medical mission to Noyemberyan in 2018.”

In her early years in America, she had to overcome many obstacles, but eventually things fell into place, she says. She also met and became friends with quite a few Armenians, along the way observing some common attitudes toward health. “Speaking as a physician, I would say there are particular traits associated with Armenians of various communities,” Dr. Stepanyan explains. “For instance, there are distinct differences pertaining to attitudes toward taking medications. In my opinion, many Armenian-Americans are averse to taking prescription drugs. They tend to prefer home remedies, even though American medicine is among the world’s most advanced. In Armenia, on the other hand, often people can’t afford doctor visits and medications, but have great trust in physicians.”

Dr. Stepanyan says she’s delighted that in 2018, for the first time, Armenia Fund implemented a medical mission to Stepanakert as well, with the goal of not just providing free medical services and prescriptions to the local population, but also raising the technical and professional capacities of the Stepanakert Republican Medical Center to the next level. During the mission, held from September 27 through October 5, the volunteer doctors from the US provided an extensive range of medical services to close to 1,040 patients from Stepanakert and other regions of Artsakh. The services included groundbreaking procedures such as total knee replacements; gastrointestinal (GI), brain-aneurism, ophthalmological, and cancer surgeries; as well as endoscopies, colonoscopies, cerebral angiographies, and dialysis treatments, with the key aim of training local doctors in the latest approaches and techniques pertaining to their fields of specialty. As significantly, thanks to a generous donation by Chevy Chase Surgery Center, Armenia Fund provided the Stepanakert hospital with a complete suite of state-of-the-art GI machinery for screenings and surgical procedures, as well as leading-edge ophthalmological and orthopedics equipment and implants, in addition to large quantities of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.

It was Dr. Stepanyan’s second time in Artsakh. “I had visited Stepanakert in 2015,” she says. “I find it fascinating that despite all the difficulties, despite the clashes and constant sniper fire along the border, people here take things in stride and with a smile, and welcome guests with open arms. As a doctor, I’ve also noticed that the city is kept extremely clean.”

Dr. Stepanyan stresses the vital importance of the training provided to Stepanakert doctors by their colleagues from Adventist Health. “During Armenia Fund’s week-long mission, local doctors have acquired the types of advanced knowledge and skills that will help them provide medical services of the highest possible quality,” she says.

HELP US EXPAND OUR MEDICAL MISSIONS TO THE HOMELAND: With your generous support today, Armenia Fund will be able to expand the scope of its medical missions to Armenia and Artsakh, with the twin goals of elevating the technical and professional capabilities of medical centers, and providing high-quality care to economically vulnerable communities.

Photo Credit: Areg Balayan