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Sara Petrosyan

Removing the Bandage: “Vartoush, is that you? My, but you’ve aged.”

Many visiting the mobile eye hospital are the elderly suffering from cataracts.

When sight is restored after surgery, the consequences can be stressful despite the overall joy of seeing once again.

Eye surgeon Asatour Hovsepyan recounts the case of a grandmother who lost her vision to a cataract eight years before. The day after removing the cataract, Hovsepyan removes the bandage from the woman’s face. Her daughter is there to witness the event. Upon opening her eyes, the old woman exclaims, “Vartoush, is that you? My, but you’ve aged.”

The Armenian Eye Care Project (AECP) launched the “Bringing Sight to Armenian Eyes” program in 2003. It is aimed at strengthening the eye care delivery system and reducing preventable blindness in Armenia. 

Doctor Hovsepyan says he got involved in the program way before the ACEP was created.

“I used to collaborate with the AECP’s founder Roger Ohanesian. He would send material and equipment to the Malayan Center from America. By the time the items arrived, much was no longer usable,” says Hovsepyan.

Hovsepyan says that the breakage notwithstanding, the equipment allowed the Malayan Center’s surgery to remain modern. Most distressing was the situation of residents in the country’s provinces with eye issues. They really had nowhere to go.

AECP President Roger Ohanesian and Malayan Eye Center Director Alexander Malayan got together and thought of ways to help people. This is how the mobile eye hospital got started.

“They brought this truck to the yard of the Malayan Eye Center, where I was working, in 2002. My father was an engineer and I knew a bit about equipment. I installed the equipment and ran a test. I shut the door and handed the truck’s keys to Ohanesian. He pushes them back to me and says I have to start driving,” says Hovsepyan, explaining how he got his start as the Mobile Eye Hospital (MEH) coordinator.

The MEH took off from the town of Ashtarak in June 2003 to tour the provinces.

In addition to being an eye surgeon, Hovsepyan is an engineer with a number of innovations under his belt. On the road, he’s able to keep the MEH up and running.

For the past 13 years, the MEH has been on the road for nine months annually, providing eye care to residents outside Yerevan.

According to data provided by AECP Founder-President Ohanesian, Dr. Hovsepyan has performed 15,000 surgeries over the years; 1,700 last year alone.

When I ask Dr. Hovsepyan if the number of people seeking help has diminished, he replies, “The number of patients is going up. We are the ones providing medical care to all those eligible for state-financed surgeries.”

Optometrists at provincial clinics compile lists of those needing surgery but can’t afford it. Hovsepyan says that, nevertheless, the MEH can’t always predict the number of patients who will show up for treatment. He says that when the truck arrives at a distant town or village, many more people show up at the last minute.

“I perform 10-15 operations daily. They sometimes last from morning to midnight,” Hovsepyan says.

Hovsepyan says that he now sees many patients who failed to seek medical help in time and have been living sightless, and alone, for many years.

“Did their relatives forget to take them to see a doctor? Was restoring their vision deemed secondary? Maybe they didn’t have the money? It’s difficult to say. But I observe one overarching reason. The elderly in villages are alone. Before, the grandkids would bring them to the mobile hospital. For the past two years, they’ve been on their own, with no caregiver. Sometimes, it’s a neighbor that brings them,” Hovsepyan says.

A father of four, sometimes it’s hard for Hovsepyan to be travelling around Armenia in the mobile hospital. At times, they’ve stayed for a month or longer in one province.

“I miss my family, but my absences have become routine. It’s a great feeling to see a person whose sight you have restored,” Hovsepyan says.

The AECP decided to set up permanent centers to replace the mobile hospital in five Armenian provinces starting in 2015. Eye clinics have already opened in Ijevan (Tavoush) and Spitak (Lori). Three additional clinics will open in a few years.

Photos courtesy of AECP

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