It has been nearly a year since Azerbaijan’s attack on Artsakh, an ethnic enclave home to hundreds of thousands of Armenians, and much has changed in that time. What began as an attack targeting innocent civilians in their homes, businesses, schools, churches and hospitals ultimately led to war as it propelled Armenia’s military to act. In the past year, over 5,000 Armenian soldiers have been killed, countless more have been wounded and more than half of the civilian population of Artsakh has been displaced from their homes as they seek refuge in Armenia.
It has been a tragic past year for Armenians in the region but it has also been a time when Armenia’s community of supporters have risen to the occasion and lent a helping hand. Due to the immense support from dedicated donors as well as organizations like UCLA’s Operation Armenia, the Armenian EyeCare Project (AECP) has been able to meet the increased need for vision care in post-war Armenia through the organization of both emergency relief efforts immediately following the attack and ongoing relief programs that continue to offer care for those who need it.
This has included urgent care for wounded soldiers and civilians during and immediately following the war; the launch of our Vision Referral Program to most efficiently care for those injured and the expansion of our Low Vision Center to offer aid to the increased number of Armenians with vision loss.
Emergency Relief Efforts
With resounding support from donors and unwavering commitment from our doctors and staff, the AECP was able to offer a coordinated response just days after the war began, utilizing our established infrastructure, equipped clinics and trained medical staff.
Dr. Asatur Hovsepyan, AECP’s Chief Surgeon, was among the first physicians to respond to the need for a skilled eye surgeon in Artsakh, volunteering to work in the region’s makeshift military hospital. Working aboard our Mobile Eye Hospital for nearly 20 years, Dr. Hovsepyan has gained extensive surgical experience that was invaluable on the front lines. But even with these skills, he admitted that the injuries sustained in the recent war were severe and previously unseen due to new-age weapons, including cluster bombs, which cause terminal damage to the eyes. During his time in Artsakh, Dr. Hovsepyan saw up to 50 soldiers a day and treated injuries ranging from pieces of shrapnel in soldiers’ eyes to aluminum-like particles undetectable on X-ray to more severe cases where eyes were irreversibly damaged due to explosions and drone strikes.
“Doctors and patients were crammed in one room of the hospital, which was in a safe zone because the main hospital was being targeted by Azeri missiles,” Dr. Hovsepyan said. “At times, a team of doctors worked on one patient as many areas of the body needed care. Every doctor was doing their best to save as many lives as possible.” In some cases, Dr. Hovsepyan had to perform emergency surgery using what basic equipment was available. Despite the conditions, surgeries went well and patients could then be transported to the Malayan Ophthalmological Center in Yerevan for follow-up care. There, the Center’s Trauma Department had become a military hospital and staff worked nonstop to ensure wounded soldiers received immediate attention.
Two AECP Fellows, Dr. Armine Gharakeshishyan, Head of the Neuro-Orbital Department, and Dr. Georgi Grigoryan, Head of the Trauma Department helped provide urgent eye and face reconstruction for the injured soldiers. “We were working around the clock to provide immediate care to our soldiers as any delay could result in the need for a prosthesis at a later stage,” Dr. Gharakeshisyan said.
Ongoing Relief Efforts
In addition to treating immediate eye trauma, we also quickly realized that many soldiers wounded in the war would need long-term, follow-up care to recover their sight, including orbital implants and ongoing assistance at the AECP’s Low Vision Center. With this in mind we launched a Vision Referral Program, facilitating the highest quality eye care by connecting specialists in Armenia and abroad to discuss cases and offer the best treatment solutions. This effort has largely been made possible thanks to the generous support of UCLA’s Operation Armenia, which is a coordinated endeavor under the umbrella of The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA and implemented through the advocacy of UCLA Health, to provide immediate medical disaster relief and long-term humanitarian aid and support to Artsakh and Armenia.
Well-known in Armenia’s medical community as a consistent supporter, the AECP has also received many requests for aid from various medical facilities in Armenia so they too can address the needs of wounded Armenians. As such, hundreds of ophthalmic equipment, surgical supplies and eye implants have been donated to eye clinics across Armenia through the AECP. We have also played a key role in coordinating donations of much-needed medical equipment outside of eye care, from supplies for abdominal surgeries to ear, nose, throat and dental tools as well as equipment for clinics both in Armenia and Artsakh.
In addition to medical outreach, since the start of the war, the AECP has delivered several shipments of first aid medications, warm clothes and other necessities to soldiers and refugees. Women, children and the elderly displaced from Artsakh have also received food, clothes, blankets and more. As well, refugees have received eye exams aboard the AECP’s Mobile Eye Hospital and follow-up care like surgeries, laser treatment and eyeglasses when needed – all at no cost.
Continuation of Care
In addition to organizing relief efforts in direct response to the recent war, the AECP also continues its mission to make quality eye care accessible to every child and adult in Armenia. Despite the challenges of the past year, our organization was able to follow through with our plans and open our fifth Regional Eye Center in Armenia, bringing eye care to thousands more Armenians in the region who otherwise would not have quick and easy access to this care. Located in the city of Yeghegnadzor in the Vayots Dzor province, the Vahakn Aglamishian AECP Regional Eye Center welcomed its first patients last fall.
The AECP was born out of crisis when, in 1992, Armenia’s healthcare system was initially overwhelmed with the wounded from the first Artsakh War. Decades after this first war the AECP is standing next to Armenians once again in times of need. Through the dedication of our physicians and staff and with help from our faithful friends and supporters, we have been able to keep our promise to Armenia and bring sight to Armenian eyes even during the most trying of times.