Menlo Park, CA, United States
The correction in the curvature of the spine was impressive. Never before had I seen casting as a mode of nonoperative treatment for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis during my orthopedic surgery training at Stanford University Hospital. Yet, the ingenuity of the orthopedic surgeon was apparent, as he further modified the cast in an attempt to improve upon the current results. Since expensive orthoses, often utilized in the United States for similar cases, are not commonly available in Armenia, other options, orthodox or not, may be considered. These limitations in equipment access, primarily due to cost, produce a trait in the orthopedic surgeon often overlooked in the West: resourcefulness.
During my upbringing in culturally diverse Los Angeles, I learned Armenian traditions and values from my parents and family members. As I became older, however, my attention became engrossed on pursuing a medical degree, jeopardizing the foundation laid by my elders. During orthopedic surgery residency, tragedy befell our family with my mother’s passing, leaving me to reexamine my relationship with my Armenian identity. I still felt proud to call myself Armenian, but the sentiment had become hollow.
When my residency program established an elective international rotation, I seized upon the opportunity to visit Armenia and reconnect with my heritage. At 32, I traveled to the land of my ancestors for the first time. By assisting at Wigmore Clinic and Scientific Center for Traumatology and Orthopedics in Yerevan, I obtained a global perspective of orthopedic surgery. Additionally, with The Children of Armenia Fund, I broadened my awareness of socioeconomic factors impacting the delivery of care by providing counseling to families with children affected by cerebral palsy in Aragatsavan, a village located in the Aragatsotn region of Armenia.
Even though the medical volunteering alone was profoundly educational, my trip to Armenia would not have been complete without the immersion experience provided by Birthright. Throughout my stay, I resided with a host mother, Nara, whose daughter and own family of two teenage girls conveniently lived in the upstairs apartment unit. In the evenings, we gathered over soothing tea and delicious preserves to share stories. I listened intently as Nara recalled haunting memories in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Spitak in 1988 with little electricity or means to stay warm in bitterly cold winters. Watching black-and-white movies, such as Song of the First Love, and late-night news, as well as sitcoms, provided an additional portal to gain insight into Soviet and contemporary Armenia, respectively. In addition to twice-weekly language classes, the host family interactions strengthened my Armenian communication skills. Moreover, I gained an appreciation for the lives of locals that I would not have otherwise been able to grasp.
Birthright excursions also allowed exploration of areas outside of Yerevan to deepen my understanding of the region’s past. At Tatev Monastery, I felt the history of the more than one thousand-year-old complex by touching the church wall writings. In Stepanakert, I looked upon the tatik-papik monument and visualized the deep-rooted connection Armenians have had with their land. In Meghri, I stood at the outskirts of the Araks, which had been the name of my grandmother, gazing at the river, which Armenians had traversed four hundred years prior during deportations into Persia. The past and present had never felt so tangible.
Visiting Armenia as a Birthright volunteer provided the framework for me to form a deep connection with my motherland. At a stage in my life where I thought my career would act as an obstacle, I have fortunately developed newfound fulfillment of my Armenian heritage. Now, more than ever before, I am passionate about cherishing and further exploring my identity by maintaining a close relationship with my ancestral lands.