BOSTON — A parent will do anything to help his or her child live a normal life. But, what if your child were born with life altering birthmark on their face? There is technology to treat your child, but you have no access to it. And even it there is access to it overseas, that costs a lot of money which the parents very probably do not have. This was the case, before we came to Yerevan, Armenia to change the lives of these children.
Children in Armenia, born with red and purple birthmarks on their face or body, live with a life altering conditions that leaves them isolated and ostracized, ridiculed by other children in school, and deprived of a normal childhood. Although not life threating, these skin conditions have a huge psychological impact on a child’s life. In the United States and in most developed countries, these birthmarks, known as vascular anomalies, are treated shortly after birth with simple medical laser procedures. Such procedures for treating vascular birthmarks and scars, developed by Harvard Professor Dr. Rox Anderson, were made specifically to remove the birthmarks, without the need for conventional surgery. Millions of children worldwide, born with vascular anomalies, have benefited from these laser treatments, which have changed the trajectory of their entire lives.
In Armenia, these children were left untreated, because this technology did not exist. Untreated, these birthmarks become darker in color, increase in size and cause facial deformities. Unfortunately, as these children become adults, they become more isolated from their communities, and from the world. The shame associated with these lesions keeps most of them at home, as going out in public leads to uncomfortable interactions. When red birthmarks are located around the eyes, it can lead to increased pressure inside the eye, which if not diagnosed and treated, leads to blindness. This type of blindness is completely preventable, if the screening and treatment are started early.
There is nothing more deeply satisfying for doctors, than to help a child in need, and give them the opportunity to live a normal life. Successful treatment of a child enhances the quality of life of the tight knit, extended family. This is the reason Dr. Lilit Garibyan’s team decided to go Yerevan, and make history, by bringing medical laser technology, treatments, education and training for the children with vascular anomalies and scars.
Led by Garibyan, a Yerevan native, currently assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, a team comprising dermatologists and laser experts was assembled to travel from the US to Yerevan to establish a medical laser clinic. Garibyan initiated these efforts as a resident in Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School, and was doing her postdoctoral fellowship with Anderson. This facilitated the task of obtaining lasers directly from companies that manufacture them, such as Candela-Syneron and Quanta.
Anderson is world-renowned for his contributions to laser medicine. In addition, he has conducted similar missions in Vietnam with Dr. Thanh Nga Tran, who was a classmate and co-resident with Garibyan at Harvard. At the time, Garibyan was also actively involved with Armenian-American Medical Association in Boston and served as their secretary for number of years, which helped make connections with Armenian doctors. Serendipitously, at the same time, another Armenian-American dermatologist, Dr. Christine Avakoff, was looking for a team of laser experts to travel to Armenia, with her to train a local doctor there, to perform laser treatment for vascular anomalies. Avakoff was about to retire and wanted to donate one of her own lasers to the Armenian American Wellness Center in Yerevan.