Local doc finds way to give back to Armenia

Dr. Kotikian examines the cleft lip and palette of a newborn. (Photo courtesy of Sara Anjargolian)

La Cañada Flintridge resident Armond Kotikian, DDS, MD, is used to plying his trade as an oral maxillofacial surgeon in the well-equipped surgical theaters of Glendale Adventist and Glendale Memorial hospitals. But he got a lesson in improvisation while performing pro bono surgeries in Armenia this past summer.

In his first-person account, “Tools of the Trade Across Borders,” an article published online at, Kotikian describes the hospital in the Armenian province of Karabagh in which he performed dozens of surgeries over a five-day period:

“There was no air conditioning in the hospital and the temperature would reach the low 90s at noon. The nurses had special sterile instruments to dab our foreheads so we wouldn’t contaminate the field with our sweat. The hospital water occasionally ran out, and the operating nurses had to rinse our arms and hands with small buckets of water after we scrubbed. I was operating with instruments I thought didn’t exist anymore. Despite all this, things went as smoothly as they do in our pampered operating rooms in the United States.”

Now back at home, Kotikian said his time in Karabagh was an inspirational experience.

“What I learned was that, regardless of the conditions, if you have the surgical training, you’ll get by with whatever they have to get the best outcome on the patient,” he said.

Kotikian was in Armenia for the Armenian Medical International Congress, an event held every four years that draws Armenian physicians from all over the globe. He said he had been asked to lecture at the congress, and at the time he accepted the invitation, he decided to reach out to provide his services to an area in need.

“I’m about two years out of residency, and I’ve been meaning to do this for a very a long time,” he said. “It was a good way to go back and give back to my country.”

It was especially gratifying, Kotikian said, to work in Karabagh, an area in dire need of oral surgical care.

“It’s close to 130,000 people, and there’s only one individual there who is an oral-maxillofacial surgeon, just like me,” he said.

In addition to working with that surgeon, Dr. Sasun Vahanyan, to repair cleft lips and palates, remove oral and neck tumors and even remove a set of wisdom teeth, Kotikian worked to educate the local professionals in the newest techniques.

“It was a good way of giving back and educating them, and teaching them the American standards,” Kotikian said, “because they’re mostly trained with Russian techniques, which are very old school.”

Technical education wasn’t the only teaching Kotikian did, however. He said that in the more rural parts of Armenia, like Karabagh, there is a stigma attached to children born with cleft palates or lips.

“When these kids are born with cleft lip or palates, or any other facial defect, they think the kid is abnormal,” he said “What they do there, unfortunately, is when these kids are born with these cleft lips, they give them up for adoption.”

Kotikian said he worked to teach the locals that cleft lips and palates were common issues that could be fixed.

“It’s the second most common anomaly after clubfoot, and it could be corrected … it doesn’t mean the patient has any mental issues or anything else,” he said. “It’s a simple defect that can be repaired, and it happens.”

Still, said Kotikian, plenty of work remains, which is why he’s working with the Armenian American Medical Society, based in Glendale, to establish a bi-yearly mission to the area.

“What I would do is try to spend more time there, No. 1, because the more time there, the greater the opportunities,” he said. “Second of all, I’d want to take my instruments and actually donate them … so they’d actually have them and be able to use them on future patients.”

Ultimately, Kotikian said, he’s hoping his efforts manage to touch more than just the people of Karabagh.

“The biggest reason I wrote [the article] was to encourage people to volunteer their time,” he said. “Everyone can make time if they want.”