All Eyes on Ernie: Dr. Ernest Barsamian Receives Medal from Armenian Government

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Feted at AUB Gala at Boston University

By Alin K. Gregorian

BOSTON — The life and career of Dr. Ernest Barsamian was celebrated in grand fashion in September, first with a gala reception at Boston University on September 21, organized by the New England chapter of the Worldwide Alumni of the American University of Beirut (AUB), and then, with a special private medaling ceremony on Wednesday, September 25, with Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and Ambassador to the US Tatul Markarian, at Harvard University.

During a private reception at the Harvard Office of the University Marshal Jackie O’Neill, in Harvard Square, Nalbandian awarded Barsamian the Mkhitar Heratsi medal — the Armenian government’s highest medal in medicine — on behalf of President Serge Sargisian, and spent some time with Barsamian and O’Neill. As consecutive speakers pointed out at the Saturday gala, Barsamian’s achievements would have been impressive for anyone. However, for Barsamian, 87, growing up poor in Aleppo, Syria, the beautiful campus of AUB in Beirut was a dream, as were the hallowed halls of Harvard Medical School.

Barsamian’s accomplishments are numerous. He was professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he invented one of the early heart-lung machines. He was faculty dean at Harvard Medical School, chair of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery, chair of Surgical Services and chief of staff at the Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center. He was the senior consultant to the New England VA regional director and consultant in cardiac surgery to the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Surgery, among others.

He was the first Armenian foreign graduate to get accepted to the Harvard Surgical Residency Program at Boston City Hospital in 1956. He retired in 2000.

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In 1963 he was appointed chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the West Roxbury VA Medical Center. He started the Open Heart Surgery Program, which was the first among the 170 hospitals of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the third in New England. He became chief of all surgical services in 1972, chief of staff of the hospital, supervising all the clinical programs in 1978 and chief of staff of the Brockton/West Roxbury VA Medical Center, which became a major Harvard teaching hospital, in 1983.

He became an associate dean of Harvard Medical School in 1984 and a full professor

in 1988. He became the faculty dean of the medical school in 1992.

He has won dozens upon dozens of awards, but he said he was exceptionally proud of the Ernest Barsamian Auditorium at the VA, with the letters in the crimson of Harvard. Others, he said, included the Meritorious Service Award by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Plaque of Valor from the Congressional Medical of Honor Society, as well as the Exceptional Service Award by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The president of AUB, Peter Dorman, had been scheduled to attend the program but cancelled at the last minute due to political instability in the region. He issued a message, read by university trustee Dr. Joseph Martin.

In his statement, he praised the New England Alumni Chapter “for your excellent efforts in raising funds for scholarships. AUB’s annual. financial aid program has grown tremendously in the past dozen years. In 2001, it was only $2.6 million and last year it reached almost $22 million. This remarkable achievement has constituted a historic effort, thanks in large part to people like you, and we will continue toward our ultimate goal of being able to make an AUB education a possibility of all those who have worked hard enough to qualify for admission, but are blocked only by financial constraints.”

This sentiment applies directly to Barsamian, who himself was able to attend the university only through a scholarship.

Barsamian finished high school at age 15 in Aleppo, and started attending Aleppo College, a junior college. “I dreamt that one day I could attend AUB,” he recalled, adding that instead, after that first year, he worked for four years to support his family. He was finally able to enroll at AUB in 1946 through a scholarship given by Harry Dorman, then president of AUB and grandfather of Peter Dorman.

Opening the AUB program was Dr. Raja Sayegh, president of the New England chapter, who praised the evening’s honoree. “We stand on the shoulders of giants like him,” said Sayegh, adding that Barsamian happens to be the founding president of the New England chapter of the AUB alumni. He said the goal of the chapter and others around the world is to raise funds to help students attend a university that “for 150 years has been impacting the region in a positive way.” Jeffrey Karam, vice president of the New England alumni chapter, who is a PhD candidate at Brandeis University, delivered the keynote address.

He spoke fondly about AUB and the achievements of its alumni worldwide. “Tonight is your chance to get back to our beautiful alma mater. We have had our fair share of an AUB experience, at a campus that has changed the lives of many in this room,” Karam said.

He told the story of Barsamian’s life, how as a child growing up in Aleppo, higher education was not even supposed to be in the cards. Instead, he said, Barsamian became someone “who improved the lives of everyone that he came into contact with. He inspires many of us though it would not have been possible without the financial support of AUB. Just like Ernie, many young bright minds need our help,” Karam said. “The world needs more Ernies and together we can make that happen.”

He implored everyone to make donations to the AUB scholarship fund, so that students in that unstable region do not have to worry about inflation and can instead look toward a brighter future.

Another speaker, Dr. Michael Charness, who had been recruited by Barsamian at the VA Hospital as a staff neurologist in 1989 and served as chief of neurology at the Brockton- West Roxbury VA and the VA Boston Healthcare System. He praised Barsamian for being both proactive and smart, praising Barsamian as someone who knew how to treat patients as well as how to teach students.

“I came to the West Roxbury VA in 1989. I came because Ernie Barsamian gave me an opportunity. He was willing to take a chance,” he said. “It is the legacy of all great leaders. He sees things in people that they themselves don’t.” Charness also praised the education provided by AUB, noting that every chief of surgery at the VA was a graduate of the school. He noted, however, that it was not a case of AUB graduates helping each other, rather “they achieved their legacy because they were so good.”

“Ernie held the reigns of power for most of his career with dignity, honor and distinction,” Charness said, adding that he helped several staff members to develop their careers and go on to great careers. Said Michael Lawson, the recently retired director of the VA Boston Healthcare System, “He is the warmest man I have ever met. And he is the best man in the medical field,” he said, sharing a tight hug with the honoree. “Ernie Barsamian has lived. He has created action and passion in his time.”

Another speaker, old friend and colleague Dr. Aram Chobanian, president emeritus of Boston University and dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Medicine, said he first met Ernie, as he was called throughout the night by the speakers, when he came to Boston City Hospital. He spoke briefly and then sang a short song he had written for the occasion, as he said he now has time to indulge his hobby of music.

Dr. Joseph Martin, a member of the AUB Board of Trustees and dean emeritus of the Harvard Medical School, spoke about his 30-year ties with AUB. Martin praised the connections formed between Boston University and Harvard medical schools, which “came together in [providing] clinical care” at the VA hospital in Boston. He praised, especially, that those were two separate, private universities, which could only come up with this collaboration “through leadership like Ernie’s.”

He noted that the West Roxbury VA is the top-ranked veterans’ hospital in the country. “I thank you, Ernie, for your leadership and support.”

The honoree, in his comments thanked the assembled for their kind words. “The award I am getting is a very special one, as it is from my fellow alumni of AUB, that we all love and cherish so much.”

He spoke about his late wife, whom he had met there as a student and his pain and her passing from cancer. He noted, however, that these past eight years, he has been restored again by meeting his “best friend,” V. Sonig Kradjian. He also thanked his children. “I couldn’t ask for a better immediate or extended family.”

“I am very proud to have improved healthcare for our deserving veterans,” Barsamian said.

In an interview after the program, Barsamian credited some opportune chances that came his way, noting that he knew he needed to jump on them.

The members of the gala organizing committee were: Tamar Chamassian Kouspakian, Roula Chahine Rayyad, Joanne Gholmie, Nicole Babikian Hajjar, Gheed Amara Itani and Sana Tannoury Karam.

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