Helping Armenia’s Angels Smile

I just spent one of the most rewarding weeks of my career in Armenia.  I was a member of a delegation from the “Face of Angel” nonprofit organization started by Drs. John Poochigian, Christine Avakoff and Lilit Garibyan in 2019, whose mission is to establish state-of-the art medical laser clinics in Armenia and train Armenian physicians how to use these lasers to treat patients with life-altering birthmarks and severe scars.  I accompanied Drs. Lilit Garibyan and Rox Anderson of Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School who organized this trip.  In 2013 they teamed up with Dr. Christine Avakoff and Dr. John Poochigian to establish two clinics in the capital city of Yerevan – Arabkir Hospital and the Armenian-American Wellness Center.  These facilities provide high quality medical care through the use of lasers to anyone in need, regardless of economic status.  The laser equipment was donated by Candela Laser Corp and Quanta Laser companies.  

Our mission was to help as many patients as possible, as well as train local doctors in the use of the advanced laser devices in managing debilitating scars and vascular anomalies. We were fortunate to also have on the team Branko Bojovic, M.D., chief of plastic surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children, Boston.  Over four days, our team treated dozens of pediatric and adult patients and trained the leading local plastic surgeons.

Our time spent with patients and families was always touching.  It was common for an entire extended family – perhaps eight or nine members – to accompany a child who was being treated. One of the Armenian doctors explained that when a youngster made the trip from the countryside, in addition to the parents it was customary that aunts, uncles, siblings and a trusted elder would also be part of the entourage.  These children were very well looked after!

Some of the children had been treated before and were returning for follow-up.  The results were frequently profoundly positive.  The mother of a young girl who had undergone laser surgery the year before for a large birthmark on her face said her daughter’s life had been absolutely transformed. She described 9-year-old Lianna as having been extremely shy, to the point of being unable to look anyone in the eye or to make friends.  She was overjoyed that her daughter, who smiled at me with beautiful eyes, was now bubbling over with enthusiasm for school and her classmates.

Armenia is an ancient nation, in 301 AD becoming the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Once a part of the former Soviet Union, this country of 3 million people, 98% of whom are ethnically Armenian, declared independence in 1991. Although it had been one of the most developed and economically robust of the former Soviet republics, it suffered a dramatic drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) after independence. While the literacy rate is close to 100%, the economic situation is tenuous but improving. Per capita GDP rose from $886 USD in 1993 to $4200 in 2017.

Medical resources in Armenia are generally very limited but physicians across the country are well-trained and enormously dedicated to elevating the care of their patients.  I learned a great deal from them as I did from my fellow members of our very collaborative delegation.  It was inspiring to be a part of this mission to improve the lives of patients whose injuries and birthmarks have significantly diminished their quality of life. In order to accomplish its mission of establishing fully functioning and sustainable medical laser clinics in Armenia, the “Face of Angel” organization is planning to take more lasers to the country and organize more trips to train and teach Armenian physicians. The team encourages those interested in  supporting these plans to contact  lgaribyan@mgh.harvard.ed 

The “Face of Angel” organization is truly life-changing for all those it has touched and I am indebted to its founders for allowing me participate and give back.