Healing Armenian kids a sight to see

Reaching from Los Angeles to Yerevan, local doctors are healing the eyes of Armenian infants who otherwise would go blind.

In June, a team of six doctors performed surgeries at a neonatal clinic in Yerevan, delivered key equipment and trained roughly 200 Armenian doctors in how to treat retinopathy of prematurity.

The illness strikes premature infants whose eyes have not developed enough to be exposed to the outside environment, said Dr. Thomas Lee, director of the Retina Institute at the Vision Center at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, which partnered with the Armenia Eye Care Project on the mission.

Lee said the condition was unknown until recent medical advances helped save the lives of premature babies who in earlier times would not have survived, and that serious cases surface more often in developing countries.

If the condition, which often corrects itself, becomes serious, doctors have only about two days to save a child's eyesight.

"It is a very time-sensitive disease, not like cataracts or glasses, when you have all the time in the world to take care of it," Lee said. "If you don't get to the kid in a brief, specific period of time, that kid will go blind."

Inspiration for the visit came from Dr. Roger Ohanesian, an Orange County ophthalmologist who founded the Armenia Eye Care Project in 1992. Ohanesian has spearheaded more than three dozen medical missions to Armenia and brought several Armenian eye specialists to the United States for training.

He asked Lee, an expert on retinopathy of prematurity, to lead the latest effort.

"I said, 'I'll give you my lectures, you tell me how it goes,'" is how Lee characterized his original response.

But when Ohanesian urged Lee to go to Yerevan, plans changed.

"Roger is a pied piper," Lee said. "He can make you do anything he wants."

What started as a brief training sortie turned into a major effort in which the Armenia Eye Care Project provided two digital retinal cameras, each worth as much as $100,000, to the Malayan Ophthalmic Center in Yerevan.

The doctors offered lectures and then worked side by side in the neonatal intensive care unit with Armenian doctors. One day, the delegation completed a 10-hour surgical session — though the newly-trained Armenian doctors kept going for two more hours.

Now, Lee and others are conducting weekly video conferences in which the Armenian doctors send photos of patients via the Internet, then offer diagnoses with the counsel of American advisors.

Ohanesian's group will pay to continue the effort for two-and-a-half years, then the Armenian Ministry of Health will pay the tab, said Ohanesian.

"They felt they could do that because the cost of treating blind children is enormous," he said. "They felt by paying for early treatment and prevention, there is an economic benefit for the country, in addition to the social benefit."

Lee said the trip has blossomed into a full-fledged partnership with the Armenia Eye Care Project, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and clinics in Yerevan, with plans to expand assistance and training well beyond what the eye can see.

"This is just the beginning," Lee said.

Over the years, Ohanesian said doctors trained through the Armenia Eye Care Project have performed 10,000 surgeries and seen more than 300,000 patients who could not afford to pay.

"That's 10% of the whole country," Ohanesian said."And it is the Armenians that are doing it. We trained them, granted, but once trained they shouldered the burden and are treating their countrymen for free."

Funding for the project comes largely from members of the Armenian-American community. Ohanesian said Glenda and Luther Khachigian of Fresno paid for one of the retinal cameras the group delivered to Yerevan.

"The support of the Armenian community elsewhere has made such a difference in Yerevan," Lee said. "The diaspora is their life line."

Ohanesian, who first visited Armenia when the country was still torn by war with Azerbaijan, said the project's goal is to "work ourselves out of a job" by making Armenia a leader in eye-care treatment and research.

"When we first went there it was a state of despair," Ohanesian said. "Now it is a center of excellence."

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