A Medical Mission Trip That Taught Us So Much
February 12, 2014
By Vahe S. Tateosian, MD
My first international medical mission trip to Armenia helped confirm a simple truth: the more one learns, the more one realizes how little we all know.
‘Working with my fellow anesthesiologists from Armenia, I was impressed by their skills and knowledge, and overjoyed by their willingness and ideas on continued collaboration.’
Throughout years of training to become a pediatric anesthesiologist, I had wanted to be part of a medical mission, but always assumed that my role (once my training had been completed) would be more as a teacher rather than as a student.
Yet, my patients proved to be the greatest teachers, along with the physicians, surgeons, nurses, and students who shared their skills during my 10-day mission. The relationships with the patients and the Armenian healthcare professionals are most memorable and will stay with me the longest.
To set the stage, allow me to rewind eight months or so, when I was contacted by the Plasticos Foundation through my former employer, the Cleveland Clinic. The Plasticos Foundation was looking for a pediatric anesthesiologist who spoke Armenian, and had the ability to endure a mission to a developing country to perform complex pediatric surgery.
Plasticos was assembling a team to provide reconstructive plastic surgery to Armenian orphans and children from remote Armenian villages. The medical team coming from the U.S. would perform surgeries, and receive support from Armenian medical personnel. The U.S. team was to provide training that would ensure the Armenian medical team could provide follow-up care to the surgery patients equivalent to care in any Western country.
A total of 16 professionals were on the U.S. team, including 3 surgeons, 2 pediatric anesthesiologists, OR nurses, an IT team, and trip coordinator. The idea was to bring a self-
sufficient team that could serve patients from pre-op through post-op recovery.
Our mission was conducted entirely at the Arabkir Medical Center in Yerevan. On the first day, the team screened approximately 130 children. Sixty patients were accepted for surgery, beginning the next day.
Most days we operated 12 hours a day. As with any international medical mission, the days in the hospital were full of constant adjustments and considerations—from the equipment used, to the relationship between the nurses and physicians, and their “normal” routine. Thankfully,
I spoke the language, but was given a brief introduction to “informed consent” on our first day in the hospital by one of the anesthesia residents, an astute and well-spoken young man. Parents simply wanted to be assured that their children would be well taken care of, and they put their faith and trust in us, which was both humbling and inspiring.
Interacting with our young patients, their parents and (for the orphans) caretakers was, of course, the most rewarding part of the job. It was apparent, just as it is in the U.S., how much these pediatric patients were loved and cared for. A difference was the measure of success. Too often in the U.S., our successes are measured by efficiency, and speed. Too often, we don’t realize the impact of even a simple procedure on the lives of our patients and their families. These
Armenian families allowed me to rediscover, sometimes well after our encounter with them, the true purpose of our actions.
The relationships with our fellow healthcare professionals were meant not only to teach them, but also to teach us. Together we were creating a foundation for collaboration and learning by any means we had at our disposal. In such a technologically advanced age, our methods of communication, teaching, interaction and interpersonal relationships seemed endless.
Yet, it was obvious how much the Western world takes for granted. Many of our First World problems constitute interest rates, traffic jams, and status updates. Third World problems are urgent needs, such as social services, transportation, basic healthcare and infrastructure. A few of the nurses I worked with had been on call, stayed in the hospital 24 hours, and continued to stay and help the following day, well past their shifts, in order to contribute. All with smiles on their faces! Needless to say, many of them commute home on buses for over an hour.
We often take for granted the resources and information that are so easily at our disposal, simply a few swipes away on our smartphones. Yet, working with my fellow anesthesiologists from Armenia, I was impressed by their skills and knowledge, and overjoyed by their willingness and ideas on continued collaboration.
Back home, I stare at the thousands of lights of the cars ahead of me in traffic on the way to work. In Armenia, our jaws dropped every morning with the views of Ararat on the bus ride to the hospital. I’m often asked what I will remember most, what inspired me the most? The commitment of the Armenian doctors, students, and nurses. The frustration in their eyes and in their tone, mixed with hope. The ideas exchanged by fellow anesthesiologists and surgeons in the plans for future endeavors. The children and their parents who had only words and hugs to express their gratitude. Ayo (Yes), all of that and more.
Dr. Tateosian is a member of Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO), whose mission includes providing outreach and health care through Medical Missions to Armenia.
Edited by Yervant1, 14 February 2014 - 09:34 AM.