Newport eye doctor helps rural Armenia see

Newport Beach ophthalmologist Roger Ohanesian's first visit to Armenia came two days after he received a fax from the country's Ministry of Health requesting emergency help from American doctors.

"I left for Armenia, not sure where I was going, and not able to speak the language," Ohanesian said. "I was not sure of what was expected of me, but I left."

The American doctor of Armenian descent arrived to find a country in a terrible state, with overwhelmed hospitals and clinics, staffing shortages and outdated equipment.

That first trip led to 40 more and the founding of the Armenian EyeCare Project, a nonprofit that provides free medical services throughout Armenia, including rural areas with no existing medical facilities.

"It's amazing to me what small donations here can mean in a country like Armenia," Ohanesian said. "It's cheaper there, so you can do more. For example, $500 can pay for screenings for an entire village, and just $100 can pay for cataract surgery for half a dozen people."

Although Armenia was struggling from the aftermath of natural disasters and a war with neighboring Azerbaijan when Ohanesian received the distress call in 1992, it hadn't always been that way. Armenia had trained doctors, but far too few supplies and no way to reach impoverished rural villagers.

"These very fine doctors were unable to operate in the county's farthest regions because of the equipment — it would be like jet pilots riding bicycles," Ohanesian said.

To solve this dilemma, EyeCare Project created the mobile eye hospital. The 18-wheel truck contains two exam rooms, two medical lasers, an operating room and a generator that can provide power in villages without electricity.

To date, about 300,000 people have received free mobile treatments and more than 40,000 have received glasses.

More than 5,000 others are treated each year through EyeCare Project's six clinics.

The nonprofit also launched a program last year to combat infant blindness caused by retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), an eye disease that affects more than 500 Armenian children a year.

"[ROP] is treatable, but if you don't, the children go blind by their first birthday and essentially live a whole life as though they were blind from birth," Ohanesian said. "It's terrible."

However, with the nonprofit training Armenian doctors to staff the clinic and mobile hospital, they are becoming adept at treating ROP and other eye diseases.

"They are moving from a state of despair to a center of excellence," Ohanesian said.

A documentary about Ohanesian's ongoing efforts in Armenia and the mobile eye hospital won the CINE Golden Eagle award in the spring 2010 competition. The video can be viewed on the nonprofit's website.

Twitter: @speters01

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