Time sure does fly. It has been four weeks since I arrived here in Gyumri, a city located in the northwestern region of Armenia that recently has been designated a cultural capital of the old Soviet Republic. The weather here is a lot cooler than Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, since Gyumri is situated at a higher elevation. So far, I have been able to meet and talk to many citizens who have been very kind and grateful for having young American volunteers helping out within the region. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to visit various historical sites within the city and have been able to see some of the ruins from the 1988 Spitak Earthquake. Unfortunately, the population has been slowly decreasing due to fewer work opportunities and is currently about 145,000. Despite the difficult challenges that the Gyumri people have faced within the past 30 years, their strong spirit is still felt.
During the weekdays, I spend my volunteer time at the S. Malayan Eye clinic where I get to see about 15 to 20 patients each day. It is an enlightening experience for me to witness the afflictions that I do not typically see in eye clinics back in the states. Here, patients do not come for annual eye examinations. The majority come in with eye infections since there is a lot of dust and dirt in the air. I have also seen patients with pink eye, corneal edemas, uveitis, amblyopia and other types of eye conditions/diseases. It was interesting to see that only four patients out of the many I have seen so far had perfect 20/20 vision. About 80-85% of the patients that have severe vision loss are from diabetic retinopathy or advanced stage glaucoma.
There are two doctors that work at the clinic: one optometrist and one ophthalmologist. Once every week, the ophthalmologist performs eye surgeries, including cataract, pterygium removal, and iridectomy for advanced stage glaucoma. Even though I speak Armenian fluently, I was having a hard time communicating with the doctors when I started my internship since I was not familiar with Armenian medical terms. It was a challenge for me because I wanted to learn more about the patients’ conditions and to be able to explain what I learned during my first year of optometry school. However, since then, I have improved my communication with the patients and doctors.
During our coffee breaks, we have had many great conversations about the differences in eye care between Armenia and the United States. One time, the ophthalmologist asked me if I had learned to perform surgeries yet. I had to explain to him that in the United States, ophthalmologists are responsible for performing eye surgeries and that optometrists are the primary eye care providers who refer patients to the ophthalmologist. Similar to America, the optometrist here does the refraction and prescribes medication to the patients. However, optometrists in Armenia inject steroids and other drugs underneath the eye to protect the retina. In America, ophthalmologists tend to work with injections more, especially before a surgery. In addition, there is no medical insurance here in Gyumri and in most of Armenia. Every six months, patients of the clinic need to pay 8000 dram, which is about twenty dollars. This may count as a type of insurance unique to this area.
Overall, my experience here has been great. The patients are generally thankful. When I brought sunglasses as well as prescription glasses to donate to each patient after their check up, they were very grateful. Some of them did not even want to take the donation because they felt bad not paying for it, but I explained to them that my school back in Boston donated them to the clinic. They thank NECO with the bottom of their hearts for all the help.
I will share more of my experiences with the patients in my next blog. So stay tuned.