“The EyeCare Project has played a huge role in my life. Their investment in Armenia is priceless.”
In his childhood, Dr. Armen Vardanyan loved playing with animals. He would bring home turtles, porcupines and even snakes – any creature he could find. One day, he remembers a large eagle falling and injuring its legs. His natural reaction was to heal the bird by cleaning its wounds and bandaging them up.
Since then, Dr. Vardanyan knew he wanted to become a doctor. His wish was to heal humans just as he did animals growing up. But around the time Dr. Vardanyan became a physician in Armenia, the country was engrossed with several life-changing challenges – a tragic earthquake that left thousands dead or severely injured in 1988; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and an ongoing war with Azerbaijan lasting through 1994.
Due to the catastrophic consequences of these events, the number of injured Armenians needing medical care was at an astronomical level during this time. What’s worse, doctors, including Dr. Vardanyan, would have to operate without electricity or water and were beyond overwhelmed with the needs of their patients.
“When the Armenian Eyecare Project (AECP) started in 1992, Armenia could not have been in worse shape,” AECP Volunteer Physician Dr. John Hovanesian remembers. As the EyeCare Project began to embark on Medical Missions to Armenia, gathering groups of volunteer physicians to help the local medical personnel, it became clear that what was most needed was advanced medical education and training for Armenia’s local doctors.
“The reality was that at the time the physicians there were very well-intentioned, but they didn’t have the training to really handle the problem,” AECP Volunteer Physician Dr. Barry Kuppermann says.
“What we were lacking was training,” Dr. Vardanyan says.
This is when the Armenian EyeCare Project began its Fellowship Program, inviting Armenia’s top physicians to receive advanced medical education and training through a one-year fellowship in the United States.
As the AECP’s very first Fellow, Dr. Vardanyan traveled to the U.S. in 1996 and spent a year studying his subspecialty of retina at the University of California Irvine under the direction of Dr. Kuppermann.
“The contrast was incredible and it felt unreachable,” Dr. Vardanyan says, comparing the knowledge he gained during his fellowship with his medical experience before.
“They’re introduced to equipment and techniques that they did not know existed,” AECP Founder and President Dr. Roger Ohanesian says. “And as I promised all the Fellows, when they came back to Armenia, they would have all the equipment that they needed.”
With millions of dollars of cutting-edge medical equipment being donated to Armenia through the AECP and local physicians returning to Armenia following their fellowships to establish and head Subspecialty Clinics in the country’s capital, the state of eye care services in Armenia has improved drastically through the years.
“What I gained from my fellowship was the education I needed to no longer feel powerless,” Dr. Vardanyan says of his experience. “There is no better feeling than being able to prevent my patients from going blind.”
What’s more, Armenian physicians like Dr. Vardanyan who participated in our Fellowship Program train other local doctors, improving the entire state of ophthalmology in Armenia and making the country a medical tourism destination for surrounding regions. Before, patients with difficult cases would typically be sent out of the country for care. Now, patients travel to Armenia from other countries to receive eye care. As well, physicians and medical personnel come to the country for medical education and training.
As for Dr. Vardanyan, he is so thankful and appreciative for all the AECP has done for him, for his patients and for the future of Armenia.
“The EyeCare Project has played a huge role in my life,” he says. “Now I feel like a capable physician. Their investment in Armenia is priceless.”