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Interview with Rojeh Melikian

OCAPS Executive Committee interviewed longtime OCAPS member Rojeh Melikian about his recent time volunteering his medical expertise in Armenia as the 2nd Artsakh war was coming to a bitter end.

Can you tell us a little about the type of medical professional you are and your experience?

I am an Orthopaedic Surgeon who specializes in Spine Surgery.  After medical school at USC, I went to Harvard for my orthopaedic surgery residency and did my Spine Surgery Fellowship at Emory. I then returned to California and have been in private practice since in Los Angeles and Newport Beach.  

What Inspired you to go into the Medical Field?

My father is a physician and was my inspiration to go into medicine.

When the war against Armenia & Artsakh started, at what point did you decide to go to volunteer your medical services, and why?

During the first few weeks of the war, I notified the Armenian-American Medical Society that I would be happy to volunteer to help treat the wounded soldiers as they were coordinating relief efforts.  A lot of war-related injuries tend to involve broken limbs, amputations, and soft-tissue injury from shrapnel, which orthopaedic surgeons can treat. I had operated on similar types of injuries as a surgery resident when the Boston Marathon bombings happened in 2013, so I felt I could contribute. A few weeks later, the opportunity came up at a few medical centers in Yerevan for both orthopaedic surgeries as well as spinal surgeries and I took the opportunity to go help.

As to why I volunteered, I couldn’t bear to do nothing while Armenia’s health system found itself overwhelmed with soldiers injured by the war. I had heard of a number of Armenian-American, French-Armenian and Russian-Armenian doctors that were volunteering there and decided to go as well.

Was the decision to go to Armenia a difficult one for you and your family knowing the uncertain dangers associated with physically being in and around the conflict zone?

By the time I had reached Yerevan, the cease-fire had already been signed so there was no immediate physical danger. More pressing was that COVID infections were rampant in Armenia in the immediate aftermath of the war. In fact, almost every physician I met there had been infected recently. In light of these risks, the decision to go to Armenia was a difficult one for us but ultimately the right one. 

Was this an individual mission or were you traveling with a team of colleagues in your field?

This was an individual mission but a colleague of mine had just come back from one of the hospitals and was able to give me a good understanding of what to expect and what the hospitals and physicians needed. 

What did the journey look like to get there and where was your final destination and/or areas you worked at? 

I worked in Yerevan at 3 Medical Centers: Kanaker-Zeytun, Erebouni and Arabkhir Hospitals.

What were the conditions of the hospitals and its patients?

Some hospitals there are relatively modern looking, others have not changed much from what I imagine they looked like during Soviet times. Equipment was obviously limited. I was able to take a few boxes of supplies with me and surgeons who had gone before had left equipment behind to be used as well, but resources were definitely scarce.

Given that I’m an orthopaedic surgeon and a spine specialist, most of the soldiers they asked me to see were either with

broken bones or had spinal cord injuries.

Were you and/or medical staff working under any dangerous conditions considering indiscriminate shelling by Azerbaijan? 

No, the final cease-fire had already been signed by the time I arrived and I was only in Yerevan.

How many operations did you or your team perform during your visit?

We did 8 surgeries over the course of 4 days there. My 5th day there I spent at a rehabilitation hospital seeing some of the soldiers who had spinal cord injuries. Interestingly enough, whereas in the U.S. I usually start surgery around 7:00 or 7:30 AM, Armenian time we started surgery around 10:30 or 11:00AM so it’s hard to do to more than a few in one day.  

Was there any specific moment or person you met that impacted you the most?

One of the patients at the rehabilitation hospital was a 19-year-old with a spinal cord injury. He had no feeling in his legs and was obviously unable to walk. This war has completely changed the trajectory of his life. He is just one example of thousands of young lives that have been completely altered by this conflict.

What was the most challenging part of this whole experience?

The most challenging part of all this can be an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  We’ve just lost a significant portion of Artsakh.  An entire generation of soldiers is either dead or living with life-altering injuries and it’s a challenging new reality we face. That reality can be seen in the faces of everyone in Armenia. It’s nothing we cannot overcome but it was definitely a wake-up call.

What was the most rewarding part of this whole experience?

Witnessing the resiliency of the Armenian people was the best part. No matter who I met, soldiers, doctors, nurses etc…they all felt it was something we had been through before and would get through again. In fact, a lot of the surgeons had been there through the first Artsakh war in the 1990’s and definitely had a unique perspective on the whole situation.  

What advice do you have for those who want to get involved?

There are a lot of great organizations doing work on the ground in Armenia that could use help. In fact, there is a push for a diaspora-run medical clinic to be built there. Anybody interested should feel free to check out  

Above all, Armenia itself needs our help and our expertise. This should be a wake-up call to the diaspora. And by that I don’t mean just pouring in donations like we have done previously. Instead, the country itself needs economic development. If each of us did something within our area of expertise to help, for instance, improving their agricultural methods, transportation, opening a business in Armenia, outsourcing web design, production etc…it would help tremendously. It’s a country that does not have much in the way of natural resources and so it’s growth has to come from technology, service-related industries etc. It has already had a lot of growth in the past few years from the technology sector but there’s a long way to go.

How has this experience changed you as a human being and/or as an Armenian?

I think it’s easy for us to get consumed by our day to day lives here in Orange County and lose sight of what is going on in Armenia. I won’t ever take it for granted again. When most of us were born, Armenia as an independent country did not exist.  Now it does. We should do everything we can to help her continue to exist and thrive.

Do you consider returning in the future and volunteering your services again? 

Anytime they need me, I’ll be there.

Final thoughts that you want to share?

I wanted to say thank you to wife Rosanne and my parents Anahid and Robert for bearing with me as I left for this trip. I know it was not easy for them with me being gone. On a positive note, the Armenian tradition of hospitality is still alive and well. The medical director for one of the hospitals picked me up from the airport personally. Every hospital I went to, I was invited into someone’s office for coffee, tea, lunches etc. The doctors there took me out to dinners and out for khash and thanked me for coming. The soldiers themselves were very thankful for all the help. They really do appreciate the help the diaspora offers!   2020 has been a particularly rough year for them so let’s keep up the good work in 2021.

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