An American volunteer’s unforgettable sojourn in Artsakh by Sevak Hakobyan

Before coming to Artsakh, Tola Omilana had never heard of Armenia and the Armenians. Today, he has made a little dictionary for himself: he is learning Armenian. And he has been given an Armenian name, Tsolak, by his new friends in Artsakh.

An American clinical specialist, Tola helps make sure that, during a heart surgery, the pacemaker being inserted into the patient is free of obstructions and goes on to function as expected, thus saving the patient’s life. Tola has come to Artsakh as part of a large team of volunteer medical specialists from Adventist Health Glendale. With support from Armenia Fund USA, the Los Angeles-based partner of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, the Adventist team has carried out its second medical mission in Stepanakert since 2018.

“A week before the start of the project, the leadership of the company I work for, Medtronic, suggested that I participate in this humanitarian mission, and I was very happy to accept,” Tola recalls. “I love traveling. I googled Armenia and read about it a little. But it’s a totally different feeling when you see this country with your own eyes and interact with Armenians.”

“People are very hospitable here,” Tola says and continues with a smile, “They constantly offer you tea or coffee. I feel so safe here!”

During the weeklong medical mission, which started on September 28, 2019, the volunteer team from Los Angeles, comprising over 60 top physicians and support staff, performed more than a hundred surgeries. In addition, five tons of medications as well as medical equipment and supplies, donated by Adventist Health Glendale, were delivered to the Stepanakert Republican Medical Center as part of the project.

Tola took park in numerous complex heart surgeries, all of which were performed on local patients free of charge. In Artsakh, which has been in a state of semi-war for the past 30 years, a worker’s average monthly salary is about $115. This means many Artsakh residents simply cannot afford heart surgeries, which can cost thousands of dollars.

“I think it’s wonderful that, thanks to our medical mission, patients in Arsakh can have complex, expensive procedures free of charge,” Tola says. “I’m proud to be a part of all this. This is my first time working with Dr. Arby Nahapetian, and it’s a great honor for me. Of course, in any operation room, the surgeon is the main decision-maker. However, as a clinical specialist, I share equal responsibility for the surgical procedure.”

The hospital’s staff has taken an instant liking to Tola. Everyone takes photos with him and teaches him Armenian words.

“My skin color is something of a novelty here in Artsakh,” Tola says. “It’s fun when local colleagues take selfies with me. I feel like a celebrity.”

“I also love my Armenian name: Tso-lak! It sounds beautiful,” Tola adds lightheartedly and goes on to repeat the Armenian words he has learned: “shnorhakalutyun” for “thank you,” “barev” for “hello,” “lav” for “good,” and so on.

The volunteer doctors from Los Angeles have not only performed check-ups, treatments, and surgeries, but shared their experience and skills with local colleagues. In fact, the medical mission’s two mains goals are to provide advanced trainings to medical professionals in Armenia and Artsakh, and to boost the technical capabilities of medical centers in both republics.

“Our mission has been important to me in terms of professional growth as well,” Tola says. “I had the chance to not only visit Armenia, but to participate in a medical mission for the first time since the start of my career two and a half years ago.”

“It is so inspiring to see the excitement of doctors from Los Angeles as they work shoulder to shoulder with local colleagues,” Tola says and goes on to promise, “If I have the opportunity to visit Armenia again, I’ll do it without the slightest hesitation.”

Photo credit: Areg Balayan