Claudia Melkonian (’18), a UC San Diego Biology major and Global Health minor, completed her Global Health Field Experience with Medics in Armenia (MIA) this past summer.  She share her unique experience working on a medical mission in Armenia.

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Claudia Melkonian (left, after a successful open heart surgery)

Please tell us about yourself.

I am a pre-medical student of Armenian descent. I am involved in several organizations on campus directed towards the Armenian culture and philanthropy. I am the president of Alpha Gamma Alpha (the Armenian-interest sorority) as well as an executive member of the Armenian Students Association. I serve as the Opportunities and Research Coordinator for Medics in Armenia, for which I plan information sessions with different professionals, and provide helpful resources for our pre-medical members.

Tell us about your Field Experience (FE).

I came to Yerevan, Armenia as part of the UCSD Medics in Armenia Organization for 3 weeks.

What does your organization do? 

MIA is focused towards providing a medical shadowing and volunteering experience in Yerevan, Armenia, which consists of about 100+ hours of hospital volunteer work, including shadowing doctors during their rotations. We also volunteered at a school for children with mental disabilities. We were able to have an information session for pre-medical students who were interested in going to international universities. Finally, we extended our philanthropic efforts to these students and patients.

Surgery Break

What did you do for your FE? 

Angioplasty

Medics in Armenia worked at Nork Marash Cardiovascular Hospital which is said to be one of the only hospitals in Armenia that specializes in cardiovascular medicine. At the hospital we were working in five different rotations. Invasive surgery (including open heart surgery), non-invasive surgery (including angioplasties), intensive care unit (including post-operation procedures), and patient rounds (including follow ups). Because there are only doctors and nurses in the Armenian healthcare system (no RNs, no PAs, no volunteers), the doctors have to spend their time and effort finding and setting up their supplies during their rotations. We were able to assist them in expediting these pre-operation procedures and provided assistance to them during surgery if needed. Aside from that, we spent a lot of time helping the pediatric patients, for whom there are no intriguing past-times at the hospital. Finally, we were able to lend a hand to their sanitary efforts which were severely lacking.

Infant after stent insert

What were some challenges you faced during your FE? How did you overcome them?

Every aspect of the healthcare system was a moral and ethical challenge to us. First of all, health insurance is a foreign concept in Armenia, meaning that patients either cannot afford to receive the medical attention that they desperately need, or that they must return to work immediately after their procedures, not allowing time for recovery and leading to complications. Secondly, the sanitation in these highly sensitive environments was extremely neglected. It was very clear to us that the high prevalence of post-operative complications could possibly be due to infections from the lack of sanitation. Next, the hospital was so underfunded that the doctors would have to spend their time and energy on things other than the patient. The equipment they used was almost always damaged and absolutely outdated, meaning that the doctors would have to resort to old-fashioned procedural techniques. We were able to look past these challenges and move forward with the program.

Precious Ani

MIA became really attached with the pediatric patients at the hospital. Every day we would pay a visit to each of the kids bringing them toys, snacks and activities. The children at the hospital were treated like adults, with no engaging activities or resources to entertain them. It was amazing seeing them open up to us; on the first day, all the children were very shy, uninterested, and gloomy, but by the end of the program, they had become as attached to us as we had become to them. Their families thanked us endlessly for giving their children the attention that they so desperately needed to get through their recovery. We as Americans have so much to be thankful for. And as pre-medical students we need to realize that health and medicine needs to be contextualized globally. When we treat our patients we need to remember that they may not be used to the treatment we are willing to provide. We must adapt to meet their needs and expectations, and must be patient with them adapting to ours.

What did you do during your free time at your FE? Or if you didn’t have free time, what other activities did you engage in other than the primary work?

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Ani finally smiling

For many of us it was our first time going back to our roots and finding a part of ourselves that had been missing. Our motherland is beautiful and engulfed with culture. We visited Amberd – the historic 7th century fortress, Temple of Garni – a 1st century pre-Christian temple, Geghard Monestary – the first Christian church of Armenia (first nation to adopt Christianity as their official religion in 301 AD), Tsitsernakaberd – the memorial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and much more.

What are you currently doing at UCSD that relates back to your FE?

At UCSD I am an executive member for Medics in Armenia. I help improve the program and continue to find opportunities for our members to be able to understand global health as it relates to Armenia. We continue to educate our members about what they can expect going into the medical field, where every single person comes from different backgrounds, different experiences and different socioeconomic statuses. We also help students in Armenia find local volunteer experiences in medicine.

Any further thoughts?

Armenia is a second-world country, but in reality, the Armenian government is extremely corrupted and their financial resources are completely depleted since the fall of the USSR. The majority of the population lives in poverty, with no government assistance, and a job market that is incredibly skewed. In Armenia, the only way to survive is to be in government and politics. The median salary for a doctor in Armenia is about the same as the median salary for a taxi driver. For that reason, the up and coming generation is entirely focused on getting a higher education internationally. However, these student do not have the means and resources to decide the right path for themselves.

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AYB High School

While we were in Armenia, we came across a private high school, AYB, for some of the best and brightest students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We were able to provide advice to these students who want to apply to international universities, particularly UCs. We explained the American college system, which they have little to no information about. We enlightened them with different STEM related professions that will pave a stable future for them, so that they can hopefully come back to Armenia and help our country grow again. After receiving hundreds of questions, MIA decided to coordinate a webinar with the school. Back in America, we were able to find the answers to their questions, and had a four hour Q&A session with all of the students at AYB. The best part of that entire experience was being able to enlighten them about the different career opportunities. Pharmacists, podiatrists, veterinarians, physical therapists (the list goes on) literally do not exist in Armenia. Someone who studies biology in Armenia has one career path; to become a doctor – which is extremely hard since Armenia has one central medical school and the tuition is far beyond what any middle-class family can provide. We hope to continue this webinar experience, to better educate the students at AYB (and many more schools to come), and provide them with the resources they need to build a future for themselves. We also extended our membership to those students. Being a student volunteer, and being an observer in a professional medical environment as a student is a concept unheard of in Armenia. The first time that these students find themselves in a medical environment occurs after their second year in medical school. Its so important to be properly exposed to a field that you are planning on pursuing, and we can’t imagine why it is not socially accepted for students to volunteer or shadow at hospitals, but we want to do as much as we can to provide them with the opportunity to do so.

Also, while MIA was volunteering at the school for children with special disabilities,

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Furnished classroom

Alpha Gamma Alpha was able to refurnish an entire classroom with the help of MIA. Mental disability is not acknowledged in Armenia. The children with autism are kept home from school because there are no bounds for educating them. They are often not allowed to join a “regular” public school. School No. 163 in the outskirts of Yerevan is one of the only schools that allows children with a variety of mental disabilities to attend school. They are severely underfunded by the Armenian government and rely solely on donations to keep the school from falling apart. Its unbelievably hard to explain the tragedy of being inside a school with the ceilings and walls falling apart because of mold. After setting up a GoFundMe campaign, AGA was able to raise a significant amount of money and we are so proud to say that we were able to provide custom furniture for an entire classroom. This includes twenty-two (22) desks and chairs, classroom cabinets, and a teacher’s desk and chairs. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to leave something permanent in our motherland; to be able to provide something to the children who are neglected and forgotten by their government. We hope to be able to continue extending such philanthropic efforts for as long as we are able to do so.

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Sevan Lake