Doctors for Artsakh

Monumental project aimed at reviving Artsakh's impaired healthcare system

Doctors for Artsakh at hospital in Martuni

The 2020 Artsakh War resulted in significant damage to the healthcare system, particularly to its human resources, according to Fund for Armenian Relief (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, 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 the Armenian American Healthcare Professionals Organization (AAHPO). 

Through this initiative, experienced Armenian doctors go to Artsakh and stay on a rotating basis over an extended period of time. Not only would they work in Artsakh clinics, but also 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, the Nazarian Family Foundation and AAHPO. Since then, more than 250 doctors from Artsakh have undergone 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 rural Armenia and Artsakh. This integrated program is unique and vital, especially for the health care of the people of Artsakh, said Dr. Simonyan, who 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 on 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 said it was his father’s close friend, cardiologist Victor Sahakyan from Martuni, who was like a mentor to Dr. Simonyan and 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,” said Dr. Simonyan, who is married with two 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.”

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 be flown to Artsakh as donations from our compatriots who were united in their strong determination to do what they can to help Artsakh,” said Simonyan. FAR was coordinating that global response coming from all corners of the Armenian Diaspora, the government and other partners. In particular, Dr. Simonyan 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, including poor communication between Artsakh and the rest of the world, insecure roads, lack of necessary medical equipment and a continuing lack of qualified doctors and nurses. “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. “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 remembered a time while he was serving in the army and was able to correctly diagnose a soldier with an atypical disease (malaria), which resulted in saving 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 arm.” He then hugged the doctor.

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 from 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.

Cardiologist Ani Rapyan and ophthalmologist Garo Hampartsumyan have also been assisting FAR in Artsakh in the scope of the 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 3,000 people with doors open for all.” After the recent war, half of the area was tragically lost.

Dr. Ani Rapyan

Dr. Rapyan described a 40-year-old woman who had a brain tumor which the MRI 10 years ago did not detect. She had no vision during that time. 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,” said Rapyan.

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 the IT sector is from Artsakh.

With obvious emotion, she related the thought that the economy is better in other countries, but Armenia is different. “My roots are here,” she said. “I would like to visit other countries, but I want to live in Armenia. I love Armenia.”

Dr. Garo Hampartsumyan

Dr. Hampartsumyan treated 35 people in Martakert 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 close to midnight with his mother. “They had lost all other members of their family with no one left, but they stayed,” said Hampartsumyan 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 12 other operations and had not fully recovered. These are incredibly courageous people,” said Hampartsumyan.

Dr. Hampartsumyan was born in Nor Jugha Isfahan, Iran. He came to Armenia at age 12 with his parents, two brothers and two sisters. After 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.

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