Armenian Medical Education Innovator Is Fulbright Scholar

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — One can call Gevorg Yaghjyan many things: physician, plastic surgeon, associate professor, patriot, pioneer and activist. One can also call him a Fulbright Scholar at Boston University School of Medicine since January.

His resume covers four solid pages, with little fat to trim. It overflows with activities both professional and volunteer.

Yaghjyan, born and raised in Yerevan and still a resident of that city, is not only a doctor of medicine, but he also holds a PhD in medicine.

Speaking to Yaghjyan can be difficult at times, since his brain seems to be working at speeds higher than those of mere mortals.

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He has received every honor from teaching awards at Yerevan State University Medical School to the Drastamat Kanaian Gold Medal from the Ministry of Defense of Armenia.

Yaghjyan’s specialty is plastic surgery, reconstructive microsurgery to be exact, and in fact, one of his projects, along  with other faculty members dating back to 1997, is founding the program to teach medical students the specialty of plastic surgery. His work often deals with reconstruction after injuries, work he perfected after his many years helping mine victims as well as civilian and military victims of Azeri fire. He also works to help cancer patients after large tumors are removed. “If an oncologist removes the tumor,” he said, they often take out more than the tumor itself, often leaving a negative space that would need to be filled. What Yaghjyan does is to “bring in tissue, muscle, tendon and bone and make it vascularized,” so that it would function and look as the normal body part.

During the war, he said, he “was a resident in the plastic surgery department, the only resident.” As a result, he said, “I traveled a lot to Karabagh to do operations at the Stepanakert Hospital,” in addition to many surgeries in Shushi. The latter hospital, lagging in terms of construction, became one of the projects for the Land and Culture Organization.

Yaghjyan this past spring taught a course at Yale Medical School, where he presented the cases on which he had worked. Yale, lofty a perch as it might seem, is not a new experience for Yaghjyan, who spent six months there in 2001 as a visiting scholar, making the acquaintance of the head of the plastic surgery department at the medical school, Dr. John Persing, the current chairman, and the former chairman, Dr. Stephan Ariyan. The Yale surgeons’ work in Armenia dates back to the period immediately after the devastating 1988 earthquake. They did their work, in conjunction with help from the AGBU and the US Agency for International Development.

In 1997, a group of Plastic Surgeons from the Mikaelyan Surgical Institute, under the Supervision of Dr. Artvazad Sahakyan, moved from the Mikaelyan Institute to Yerevan State Medical University, where the curriculum was created through the Ministry of Health. Yaghjyan said that his training at Yale helped him organize the plastic surgery residency program with other colleagues. In fact, Yaghjyan said, through a team effort, Armenia became the first post-Soviet country to have registered a separate plastic surgery specialty.

“The former rector [2006-2011] Prof. Gohar Kyalyan was instrumental in reforming graduate medical education and she invited me in 2007 to be the vice dean [rector] for the medical school,” in charge of graduate and postgraduate medical education  based on the work which was done for plastic surgery residency program, he said.

“She was my anatomy professor at the medical school and knows my career development and achievement very well,” he added.

“In 2007, Dr. Gohar Kyalyan and I were invited by Dr. Aram Chobanian to come here and see new trends in medicine. We were invited to meet the dean of the Boston University School of Medicine,” he said, Dr. Karen Antman,

The collaboration between Antman and Kyalyan proved to be fruitful. “We worked with BU to reform medical education and signed a new cooperation agreement with the BU faculty,” which agreed to come to Armenia to help to in curriculum reform on the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Yaghjyan has the distinction of being picked as a Fulbright Scholar not once, but twice. The first time, he explained, was in 2007, but he was not able to come to the US because he was “in the middle of the reforms.”

“I wrote a letter and said that I could not come,” and asked to be reconsidered if the chance arose. He reapplied in 2011 and was accepted the following year and started at Boston University School of Medicine.

In 2011, Yaghjyan joined the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia (NCFA) medical team, for which he became medical programs director in 2012.

The National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia is a public-private entity established in 2008 through a partnership between the Government of Armenia and a group of global business leaders of Armenian descent. Boston-area Armenian Afeyan and Raffi Festekjian are members of the Board of Trustees. The board functions under the aegis of the office of the prime minister.

 

Cancer Complex Being Built

During his stay in the US, Yaghjyan is also focusing on the organization of nuclear medicine education and management of cancer hospitals. He visited leading cancer hospitals in the US, including MD Anderson in Texas, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the Yale Cancer Center and the Cleveland Clinic.

The vision of the NCFA is to have a cyclotron bunker, a diagnostic center to run isotopes for imaging cancer, with work complete by 2013.

The project in Armenia is a “cancer city,” in effect, to be run by the NCFA and the government of Armenia. If the center is finished as envisioned, it would not only be a world-class center to provide first-rate care for patients in Armenia, but it would attract patients from far and wide.

Yaghjyan said that there are only three cyclotrons in Moscow and some additional few in all of Russia  and none in the countries neighboring Armenia, including Georgia and Iran.

Yaghjyan said that he has also been involved with the HYEBRIDGE telemedicine project that Armenia Fund USA is leading and hopefully after his new connections with Boston University and Boston Armenian Medical Association, the Boston doctors will be more involved in this initiative

In between his incredibly hectic professional schedule, he finds time to head the Land and Culture branch in Armenia.

 

Land and Culture

Yaghjyan recalled that his work with the Land and Culture Organization started soon after the group came to Armenia in the wake of the 1988 earthquake that had destroyed much of the north of the country.

“I started while I was in medical school. I was sent to them to be helpful and I started to volunteer with them in 1991. In 1992, he became the organization’s president in Armenia.

The group has worked on the school in the Karabagh town of Karintak, as well as rebuilding the church in Gogaran in Armenia, renovating Tatev and the Shushi Hospital, which is now complete.

Yaghjyan has made lasting friendships through the years, ones that have enriched not only his personal life but also Armenia’s medical future. One such connection was with Dr. Rafi Avitsian, head of the Neurosurgical Anesthesiology Section at the world-famous Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. He got an invitation in 2003 to visit the hospital as part of an observership program. The program had no money and little capability for helping visiting doctors, but through Avitsian, the program has grown. He makes regular trips to Armenia to teach, in addition to being “the ambassador for this program at Cleveland Clinic.” Since 2005, he has hosted students in his house. The program is free for all students from Armenia

During his incredibly rich medical career, Yaghjyan has worked from the bottom to the top. It was what he saw in his duties as an intensive care nurse in post-quake Armenia and wartime Karabagh that he decided to pursue his medical course relentlessly.

“I saw a lot of people during the Karabagh war and the earthquake. I decided it was good for me to do something new and take something very, very new, go on a long and difficult journey. In 2007 the continuing medical education  and graduate medical education was in the process of developing and I was happy to use my knowledge and experience in that area. I am happy to be at the front lines, be they medical, educational, clinical or innovational.”

Yaghjyan will return to Armenia in September.