BY FLORENCE AVAKIAN
The recent war in Artsakh caused significant damage to the healthcare system, particularly to its human resources, says FAR Healthcare Programs Director, Dr. Hambardzum Simonyan. Many doctors left Artsakh after the end of the war, causing a shortage of professional potential in Artsakh’s medical institutions.
To address this critical situation, Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) came up with a new initiative aimed at revitalizing the impaired healthcare system of Artsakh. The “Doctors for Artsakh” program launched with the Ministry of Health of Artsakh and “Progressive Medicine” NGO, is an extension and expansion of the Continuing Professional Training program implemented by FAR in Artsakh since 2011 in collaboration with AAHPO (Armenian American Healthcare Professionals Organization).
The initiative involved the best Armenian doctors who would go and stay in Artsakh on rotating bases for an extended period of time. Not only they would work in Artsakh clinics, but also, parallel to that, train a new generation of doctors. This new FAR initiative received an immediate positive response from its partners and supporters worldwide. The project fell into the dedicated and able hands of Dr. Simonyan with whom this writer spoke by telephone from Yerevan.
In 2005, when Dr. Simonyan joined FAR, the “CME of doctors working in the remote provinces of Armenia” project was launched. In 2011 it expanded to include doctors in Artsakh. This was made possible thanks to professional and financial support from Dr. Raffy Hovanessian, Nazarian Family Foundation and AAHPO. Since then, more than 250 doctors from Artsakh underwent extensive training in leading hospitals in Yerevan. In 2018, the training of community nurses in Artsakh was launched, thus covering the entire healthcare human resources of the rural Armenia and Artsakh. This integrated program is unique and vital, especially for the health care of the people of Artsakh, said Dr. Simonyan and continued: “I never thought that Artsakh would mean so much to me … During the first Artsakh war when I was a student at the Yerevan Medical University, my father was taking part in the war, in the frontlines. Understandably I got to know Artsakh intimately, and I really appreciated it. When I started working at FAR, I had many visits and contacts with Artsakh and its heroic people”.
He told me that it was his father’s close friend, cardiologist Victor Sahakyan from Martuni, who was like a mentor to Dr. Simonyan too, who inspired him to choose a medical doctor’s profession. “I think it came from my innate ability to help and empathize with people. I like to help people, especially children. Maybe that is why I chose pediatrics as my medical profession. And later, as the FAR’s health program coordinator, I was able to help tens, hundreds, probably many-many more people in need”, said Dr. Simonyan, who is married with 2 children.
During and after the 44-day war in Artsakh, doctors were overloaded with not only treating wounded soldiers, but also the local civilians, who had severe health problems. “They needed our support and the support was coming to them from all corners of the Armenian world, including through multiple projects coordinated by FAR. Medical supplies and critically needed tools would flew to Artsakh as donation from our compatriots who were united in their strong determination to do what they can to help Artsakh”, said Simonyan. They at FAR were coordinating that global response coming from all corners of the Armenian Diaspora, the Government and other partners. In particular, he mentioned incredible support from Dr. Gevorg Yaghjyan and Dr. Ara Babloyan.
There are still a number of hurdles that have to be overcome for the uninterrupted work of the Artsakh healthcare system, like poor communication between Artsakh and the rest of the World, insecure roads, lack of necessary medical equipment, still lack of qualified doctors and nurses, and much more. “But – one thing at a time, we should stay focused on the most important things, which are – strengthening the state of Artsakh and ensuring the welfare of its people”, said Dr. Simonyan, and continued: “As for me, since the question was asked, I have had many opportunities to leave Armenia and find comfortable living somewhere else. But I cannot leave, as my life’s mission is here, in Armenia and Artsakh”.
He remembers an interesting episode while he was serving in the army, and was able to find the correct diagnosis of a soldier with an atypical disease (malaria), thanks to which it was possible to save that soldier’s life. Years later, when Simonyan was working at FAR, two men entered his office and one said “Do you remember me? I am Samvel. You saved my life years ago in the army”, and hugged Simonyan.
Simonyan calls his father his model of a lifetime.
“My father is my role model, from whom I learned the qualities of helping, supporting and being a pioneer. On December 8, 1988 when the tragic earthquake struck, he was already in Spitak, and in 1989-1994, during the first Artsakh war, he was on the frontlines. It was my father who urged me to “work for our people”. That’s my type of a role model”, said Simonyan passionately.
Two Devoted Team Members
Two devoted doctors – cardiologist Ani Rapyan and ophthalmologist Garo Hampartsumyan have also been assisting FAR in Artsakh In the scope of “Doctors for Artsakh” project. Dr. Rapyan worked as a team member with two specialists helping heart patients for one month in Martuni, “a small town of 3000 people with doors open for all.” After the recent war, half of the area was tragically lost.
Another case involved a 45-year old nurse whose husband died in the war while serving as a volunteer. And there was also a 20-year old girl whom she treated for heart and neurological problems.
“The people of Martuni are very patriotic people as are all the people of Artsakh. They share their meals and possessions. And they want and are determined to continue living there, in the land of their ancestors.”
Rapyan was born in Gavar, near Lake Sevan. She studied cardiology at Yerevan State Medical University. Her inspiration from childhood was her aunt who was a doctor. Her parents predicted she would become a “good specialist so she can help people.” With pride she mentions that her husband who works in IT sector is from Artsakh.
With obvious emotion, she related the thought that the economy is better in other countries, Armenia is different. “My roots are here. I would like to visit other countries, but I want to live in Armenia. I love Armenia.”
Garo Hampartsumyan with dedication treated 35 people in Mardakert for two weeks “They had grave eye conditions but never took care of that.” A 35-year old man who had been seriously injured as a volunteer in the war came to see Hampartsumyan for treatment near midnight with his mother. “They had lost all other members of their family with no one left, but they stayed,” said Hamparsumyan with his voice trembling.
Another man who had caught a foreign object in his eye while repairing his damaged house came to be treated at 11 P.M. “He could barely walk because of the many injuries he had sustained during the war. He had had twelve other operations and had not fully recovered. These are incredibly courageous people”.
Hampartsumyan was born in Nor Jugha Isfahan, Iran, and came to Armenia at age twelve with his parents and two brothers and two sisters. Studying ophthalmology at Yerevan State Medical University, he reveals he became a doctor to help his father with his eye problems.
“Iran is a wonderful country for Armenia which it helps and respects”, said Hampartsumyan, adding with emphasis, “but Armenia is where our roots are. I WILL BE THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE ARMENIA”
The “Doctors for Artsakh” project is generously supported by the Dr. Edgar Housepian Medical Fund, the Dr. Raffy Hovanessian Educational Foundation, the Nazarian Foundation, the Armenian Medical Fund, and AAHPO.