A reflection of Astkhik Hakobyan's trip to Armenia during the Summer of 2012.
-- By Astkhik Hakobyan, Director of Operations
As I sat in my Isla Vista apartment during the Spring quarter of 2012, I thought to myself, what will I be doing to pursue my interests this summer while making a difference in the world.
With the thought of Armenia far from my mind, and as silly as this seems to me now, I decided to gather the courage to email a certain established, successful nurse and non-profit organization co-founder, Salpy Akaragian. To my surprise, my email asking for guidance was answered with a telephone call from Salpy, herself, inviting me to be a part of that summer's mission in Armenia. In shock and taken over by excitement I jumped around in my apartment, hugging my roommate, Atina, who was the one who encouraged me to contact Salpy.
With the possibility of a trip to Armenia in my hands, I decided to take on another project very near and dear to me, the Hidden Road Initiative summer camp. Although last year's camp was more technologically based, the HRI mission is to connect roads and bridge issues; what better way to incorporate my passions with HRI's motto than by leading a medical mission that could better assess the medical needs in Akhpradzor.
The 2012 HRI summer project came together for me in more than one way. One of my favourite classes I've taken in UCSB has got to be Anthropology 2, Cultural Anthropology. The final paper I wrote for this class in the Spring of 2012 was meant to be a hypothetical research proposal. If you know me at all, you can guess that my entire paper was based on my previous experience doing fieldwork in Akhpradzor in the Summer of 2011, and added to this was a medical research proposal in a place I was familiar with, Akhpradzor. I could not miss this chance of being able to bring to fruition everything I had written in my final paper. Although I knew I could not spend a year in the village building rapport and gathering medical research data, I knew I could scale the idea down and fit it inside my 6-week schedule. With this in mind, I contacted my aunt, Sopha Harutunyan, a medical professional who lives in Yerevan, Armenia. With 35 years of experience in nursing, anaesthesiology, and most recently, chiropractics, she seemed the perfect person to ask to volunteer her services for my medical research project. The goal of my medical research project was to better assess the medical needs in Akhpradzor so we could find better ways to match their needs with outside resources.
Summer in the City of Yerevan
As the stiflingly humid days led to cool, refreshing nights, my days spent in Armenia seemed to get increasingly fulfilling. Daytime activities ranged from volunteering at Erebouni Hospital, to finding and securing a new village to work with through HRI, as some unfortunate events led to the cancellation of a summer camp in Akhpradzor.
At Erebouni hospital, I was fortunate enough to volunteer with an amazing team of doctors, nurses, and volunteers from the Armenian International Medical Fund. The team's members included but were not limited to Salpy Akaragian, RN-BC, MN (Chair of the Armenian International Medical Fund), Dr. Akira Ishiyama, M.D. (director of the UCLA Cochlear Program), and Vigen Bakhshinyan, M.D., Ph.D. Here in the hospital we worked with deaf children and young adults who were soon to experience their first sounds heard, thanks to a cochlear implant surgery.
Being present in the room when the children heard sound for the first time, I shivered and felt a rush of emotion with each child's varying reaction. From the shrill shriek of the smallest child who wasn't expecting the sudden rush of background noise, to the joyful laughter and tears of the older child who had been anticipating the moment he'd hear his own voice for 12 years. Feeling thankful for my own working senses, I sympathized with the families and was flooded with joy and excitement just thinking of the possibilities for the children’s future.
One of my fellow UCSB classmates and HRI team members, Tatevik Simavorian, was also in Armenia this summer on her own adventure with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). Maintaining our ties with AGBU’s YSIP program from last year’s HRI project in Akhpradzor, we planned another trip to the village. Joining me on the trip was HRI’s Computer Provider and Camp Leader, Tigran Msryan. Alas, while on the bus heading to Akhpradzor, we received a phone call informing us that there was a death in the village, and politely asking us to put the visit on hold. In disbelief of the situation, the bus driver pulled us over to the side of the road, until our trip coordinator, Anna Aghajanian, could decide what we were to do. Despite the grim news, the bus was loaded with toys, games, and arts and crafts, and what better way to put all these things to use than to donate them to another needy group of children? After a few phone calls, we were soon on our way to the “Trchunyan Tun” Orphanage in the city of Gyumri. Playing volleyball, painting miniature statues, jumping rope, and touring the well-kept building that was both school and home to over 60 children, it was easy to forget where we were. Reminded by the stories circling through the crowd of AGBU participants and the orphanage workers about how some of the children got here, I took pauses to reflect. I couldn’t decide whether I was glad that these children had a safe place to stay and grow, or devastated that such a place had to exist in the first place to house these children. The day’s experience would perhaps best be described as bittersweet.
New Village, New Possibilities
As my days in Armenia were slowly coming to an end, finding out that a project in Akhpradzor would not be happening was devastating, especially considering that one of the biggest reasons was that a friend and student from Akhpradzor had passed away. As the village was grieving the loss of the young man, we did not think it appropriate to try to bring a new project into the village at that time. Although this was a relatively major set-back to the plans for this summer’s camp, meeting with the principal from Akhpradzor’s school, Ms. Ginevard Ghukasyan, settled some of the confusion that had built up following the tragic news and cancellation of our program. During this meeting we decided that even though we would not be able to host a camp in Akhpradzor, it would not stop us from running a computer-class-based summer camp next year and continuing our long-time goal of keeping the roads connected and finding new issues to bridge.
Finding a new village that would be ready to accept our group in such short notice was stressful. Helping me to solve this dilemma were the HRI Yerevan team members. After several meetings with Camp Leader, Tigran Msryan, Team Manager, Lyov Alikhanov, and his wife, Mariam Simonyan, we came up with a couple possible villages to visit instead of Akhpradzor. In the end, the simplest solution proved to be staying close to my roots. I contacted a family friend from the village where my grandfather had a summer home. Kosh, the village I visited each time I came back to Armenia, the village where my grandfather grew grapes to make wine, where my father spent his summers, where my parents found an escape from city life, and now where I would conduct medical research. Again, the goal of my medical research was to identify them main medical problems of the village. I hoped that properly assessing their needs will give me a clearer idea of a future project.
Aside from stock-piling the empty school clinic in the village of Kosh with medications Sopha Harutunyan suggested would be most necessary, we also visited various homes, giving each member of the families a new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, and gave everyone in the home, who so wished, a free check-up. I used the information the patients gave and the information Sopha, the nurse, gathered to create an excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, there was a clear pattern in the information gathered; most villagers had problems that were directly related to spinal injuries and pains. Fortunately, my aunt is a practicing chiropractor and is just the person who could offer them relief.
Since village life in Kosh includes spending hours outside tending to the acres of fruits and vegetables and animals most families have, the work can become increasingly strenuous, especially as people age and rarely have vacations. What seemed most peculiar in the data gathered was that younger women were also showing signs of back-related problems at an increasingly younger age.
I have high hopes for the bettering in the life quality of the villagers of Kosh. Their lifestyle certainly cannot be changed, but relief from pain, which when left untreated, can lead to more serious health conditions, is the least we can offer them.