Some people spend their summer vacation on the golf course or the beach. Others, like Joyce M. Kurdian, D.M.D., co-owner of Ridge Family Dentistry, and Lawrence V. Najarian, M.D., medical director of Bedminster Eye and Laser Center, opt for a less relaxing, but perhaps, more rewarding experience.
In late June, the two local physicians traveled with 14 other medical professionals to remote villages in Armenia for the 2015 Medical Mission sponsored by Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO). Najarian serves as president of AAHPO and was co-leader of the 2015 Medical Mission.
Much of the group’s work was based at the Myasnikiyan Health Center, which serves 22,000 people spread out over 15 villages, five smaller walk-in clinics staffed by one family doctor, and several one-room health posts staffed by a family nurse. The U.S. medical professionals also gave lectures and updates to Armenian doctors and nurses, who do not have a formalized program of Continuing Medical Education.
“We traveled there to provide patient care, but we also had a strong commitment to transfer medical knowledge and skills to our colleagues in Armenia,” said Najarian, who has made four trips to Armenia, including a medical mission in 2011. “There is a tremendous thirst for knowledge among Armenian physicians and nurses. We now have established an ongoing dialogue between medical professionals in the U.S. and those in Armenia. Many of us were so deeply moved that we have committed to make this an annual trip.”
“Every time I visit Armenia, my heart breaks,” said Kurdian, who made the first of three medical missions to the country in 1997 before starting dental school. “Armenian people living outside of major cities do not have access to electricity, running water, adequate shelter, sanitation, health services or education. Each week, a water truck arrives to pump water into bottles.
“Primary medical care in Armenia does not include routine dental or eye care,” Kurdian added. “I was saddened to see four and five-year-old children with blackened rotted teeth. They don’t have access to fluoride and vitamins. Mothers put their babies to bed with bottles of milk and young children drink soda instead of water because it’s more readily available.”
The delay or lack of access to treatment exacerbated the medical issues the team found in Armenia, Najarian said.
“A cataract patient here will receive surgery in a timely manner and have good vision restored,” he said. “A person in Armenia will live a long time with cataracts and have greatly diminished vision or blindness.”
According to Kurdian, Armenian healthcare professionals were eager to acquire the additional knowledge and skills to help their patients, but frustrated by the lack of access to the latest tools and technologies. “They can’t run all of the tests and x-rays we do to diagnose a problem, so they rely on other tools.”
Both doctors agreed that the medical mission was both challenging and rewarding in many ways. The trip coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide – an event that hits home for Kurdian.
“My 103-year-old grandmother was orphaned during the Armenian genocide,” Kurdian sAID, “so caring for Armenian children is especially important to me.”
“It was our way of recognizing all of our forefathers’ sacrifices that enabled us to lead a blessed and privileged life in the U.S. today,” Najarian said. “We wanted to give back to the Armenian community in the most meaningful way possible.”
“We were reminded of how truly fortunate we are to live and practice medicine in the U.S.,” Kurdian added. “We have ready access to all of life’s basic necessities – great healthcare facilities, state-of-the-art equipment, professional staff, and patients who are educated about their health. It puts everything in perspective when you return home.”
To view blog posts from the 2015 Medical Mission, visit: http://www.aahpo.org/blog/