PICO REIVERA, Calif.—Earlier this school year, Mesrobian 7th grader Sevana Chalian travelled to Yerevan, Armenia with her father Dr. Armen Chalian and mother Maro Chalian, both Mesrobian Alumni (class of 1980), to provide voluntary anesthesia services for pediatric reconstructive surgeries along with a seventeen-member delegation from across the United States. The medical team was sponsored by Plasticos Foundation. and only two others beside the Chalians were of Armenian descent.
Over one hundred-twenty children were screened for life-changing surgeries for cleft lips and palates, nose and ear abnormalities, congenitally fused webbed hands and feet, and post burn contractures. Nearly fifty operations were performed. The pediatric patients came from all over, including remote villages, to the capital city of Yerevan where the procedures were performed at the Arabkir Children’s Hospital. These patients came from families in need who may have otherwise never had the opportunity for these operations.
Sevana’s duties included checking in each of the patients by taking their pictures, inputing them in the computer, and creating ID cards for each one. That first day Sevana worked for over 10 hours to properly admit all the patients. “We probably violated child labor laws that day “ dad joked, “ but Sevana never got tired or bored.” In fact, Sevana and mom Maro Chalian provided invaluable support because of their fluency in Armenian language and knowledge of Armenian culture. Sevana also helped postoperatively in the recovery room. Later, she and Maro rounded on the patients with the Plasticos pediatricians to make sure that the patients were doing well after surgery, discussing patient progress with the parents while translating for the doctors.
Sevana’s most memorable experience was when she wore surgical attire and watched first hand little Ando’s (age 18 months) operation to have his cleft lip repaired. Sevana loved being able to follow the children from first meeting them preoperatively, then watching their surgery and seeing the amazing positive results. She explained, “ I got attached to some of the children and loved seeing how their burn scars or facial abnormalities could be corrected. I’m sure that it will change their whole life. The babies with clefts were not able to even eat properly prior to their surgeries.” Even though she missed Halloween by being in Armenia, Sevana said “it was worth it.” Maro added that the joy in some of these children was tremendously inspiring. Their smiles and laughter no matter what the circumstances of their life was just amazing. Helping these families heal was very satisfying, “ for me, seeing the desperation in the eyes and faces of these parents turn to hope and relief was the greatest gift I will take away from this experience.”
The medical delegation was visited by the Unites States Ambassador John A. Heffern in a media event that was captured on Armenian Television.
Plasticos Foundation, based in Orange County, brought along over six-hundred pounds of medical supplies obtained or purchased through private donations. The Plasticos volunteer nurses and doctors of different nationalities and backgrounds liked the experience and appreciated Armenian hospitality. On the days off, they managed to visit Tsitzernakabert, the Genocide Museum, Khor Virap, and Lake Sevan, too.
In addition to providing much needed care to those less fortunate, the medical mission included teaching and supervision of young physicians in training in an effort to affect change in the healthcare delivery system in Armenia. Dr. Chalian commented “this mission was different because there was substantial teaching and professional interaction. In some ways, their doctors are the true heroes because they provide excellent care without the technology and medications we have here in the United States.”
Overall, despite the long hours, including a couple of twelve hour days, Dr. Chalian said he never felt tired because he was energized by the children and the talented team of doctors from all over the United States including New York and Yale University in Connecticut. His most memorable patient was 15 month old Tatevik whose hand and fingers were burned accidentally and transformed into a contracted ball of flesh. After enduring a lengthy surgery which involved a full thickness skin graft and wire splinting of all five digits, she has regained an open hand with expected return of moderate functionality before she is old enough to fully realize what she had lost.
“Since returning home, many have commended us on helping others but really I think the children and the experience helped us more,” Dr. Chalian said. “I am glad my family was able to come along and be of great help to the medical team. I hope to return again soon.”