For Lilit Mkrtchyan, it was an emotional moment when she learned she was the recipient of an Armenian EyeCare Project (AECP) Fellowship to study low vision in the United States.
“I had a mixture of feelings — joy, excitement, novelty and a deep responsibility,” she said.
Now an ophthalmologist in the Pediatric Department of the Eye Clinic of Medical Union Hospital, also known as the 8th Clinic, Mkrtchyan says she was always interested in low vision, but prior to her fellowship in Tampa, Florida, her knowledge of the condition was limited.
“This area is not developed in Armenia or in the former Soviet Republic,” Dr. Mkrtchyan said, adding that her country lacked basic equipment, devices, manuals, and capacities regarding low vision, which is described as a loss of eyesight that makes everyday tasks — like reading, writing, watching TV and driving a car — difficult.
But after observing and working with low vision specialists in America, Dr. Mkrtchyan returned to Armenia to establish the first Low Vision Clinic in the Caucuses and surrounding areas.
“It is a great honor for me to be a pioneer in this sphere of ophthalmology in Armenia,” she said.
During her six-week AECP Fellowship, Mkrtchyan observed the low vision examinations conducted by Dr. Tim Pettito during his weekly visits to the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind. The private, not-for-profit organization seeks to maximize independence and provide employment opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired.
“Dr. Pettito is a very intelligent person with a great sense of humor,” Dr. Mkrtchyan said. “He was always generous in sharing his enormous knowledge.”
She also praised the “positive attitude” of Cliff Olstrom, executive director of the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind; Sheryl Brown, rehabilitation services manager; along with the organization’s entire staff.
“They provided not only warm surroundings and good conditions for my work and study, but also organized my leisure,” Dr. Mkrtchyan said. “I was very pleased and surprised that my birthday was celebrated by my colleagues in Tampa. We had a wonderful time together. I will never forget that.”
Executive Director Olstrom and his staff were equally delighted to work with Mkrtchyan.
“We benefited greatly by meeting this lady. She’s a delightful, smart medical person,” Olstrom said. “We just really enjoyed Lilit a lot. We were happy to help her get some of this knowledge she was looking for.”
During her fellowship, Mkrtchyan’s days started around 6:30 a.m. The days were busy examining patients, discussing cases, exchanging opinions, and discussing new treatment approaches. During lunch, there were “lots of funny stories… lots of humor” and discussions of interesting cases. Usually leaving the office around 4:30 p.m., Mkrtchyan would spend the rest of her evenings reading medical information for hours before bed.
In addition to her experience at the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, Mkrtchyan observed procedures at the University of South Florida (USF) Eye Institute and at Tampa General Hospital. She also visited various eye doctors’ private offices and attended the American Academy of Optometry convention as part of her fellowship.
Mkrtchyan is grateful to the AECP for its support. She also extended a special “thank you” to Ms. Elizabeth Plott and Mr. Serge Papayans for sponsoring her Fellowship.
Born into a family of physicians, Mkrtchyan describes herself as a hereditary doctor. Her father, Gevorg, is an abdominal surgeon, mother, Ivetta, is an ophthalmologist, and older sister, Nune, is a pediatrician.
“I grew up in an atmosphere of concern for patients, discussing treatment and medical issues [with my family],” she says. “My decision to become a doctor, I think, was a logical and emotional outcome of these circumstances.”
When Mkrtchyan is not working, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, Janna, adding that they usually do something together on weekends, whether it’s going to the movies, shopping, cycling, or just walking through their favorite streets and parks in Yerevan.
During her AECP Fellowship, Mkrtchyan says she deeply missed her daughter. “It was difficult to be far from my family,” she remembers. “I would have liked to share with Janna all the fun I had at Disney World and Sea World.”
Back in Armenia now, she also shares what she misses about the United States: “I miss the warm days in Florida and the people who became my friends.”