Blog #4: All Good Things Come to an End

Talish, eye clinic, ArmeniaHello again, everyone!

I cannot believe it is almost the end of August. It has been one week since I returned from my 10 week internship in Armenia. It was a huge kind of a shock for me to step into America again and immediately feel the differences from the place that I had left behind. But nevertheless, I am thrilled to be back with so many great memories and stories to share with my family and friends… minus the jet lag! :)

My final two weeks in Armenia were very bittersweet for me, since I had to wrap up my work at the eye clinic in Armenian clinicGyumri. It was hard for me to say goodbye to the doctors, nurses, and the patients who I had deeply connected with during my work there. In the clinic, I was able to observe patients’ eyes through the slit lamp and ophthalmoscope, as well as giving away the donated eye drops to them. In addition, I took the time to make an educational poster for the patients waiting in the hallway. The poster contained descriptions of various common eye conditions in Armenian including diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, age related macular degeneration, and glaucoma. There is also an anatomy of the eye diagram in the center of the poster.

Once I left Gyumri, I spent my last five days in the capital, Yerevan, where I was able to visit the S. Malayan Ophthalmological Center. Currently, the center has over 200 specialists and 7 different vision departments including trauma, pediatric, and glaucoma. While I was there, I was able to observe the contact lens specialists and see how they performed contact lens fittings. The fittings are very similar to the contact lens fittings optometrists do in the US. I was also able to observe how they make RGP hard contact lenses with an optical technician. It was an interesting experience for me because he was using old Soviet style devices to make the lenses. Each pair of hard lenses costs about 25,000 dram, which is about $60. The doctors prescribe hard lenses to those patients with severe astigmatism and keratoconus. Most of the patients end up ordering soft lenses since it is cheaper and more comfortable.

After observing at the Malayan Center, I visited a non-profit organization called the Armenian Eye Care Project (AECP). AECP was founded in 1992 by an Armenian American ophthalmologist, Dr. Roger Ohanesian, whose mission it was to eliminate avoidable blindness and to provide eye care for all Armenians in need. Throughout the year, a group of doctors volunteer and travel in a mobile eye truck and perform eye surgeries on people in different regions of the country. I have been invited to work with them in the near future. I look forward to applying what I learn at NECO to help them out during my next trip to Armenia.

Overall, my 10 week experience in Armenia was very fulfilling. Not only was I able to work somewhere related to my field, but also I was able to do other projects and make friends with other volunteers from around the world. I am privileged to have been given this amazing opportunity and I am looking forward to going back to do more great things!

I also have to thank NECO, especially Dr. Jamara, for all the help and donations that they provided for me on this journey. I am so grateful to be studying at a wonderful institution that gives back to various communities in need, whether in America or abroad. And that’s a wrap! Hope you enjoyed my series of blogs this summer. I wish all of you a great start to the new school year! Best of luck… Cheers! :)

Blog #3: Many Smiles and Boxes of Chocolates

Barev dzez (“Greetings” in Armenian) from Gyumri, everyone! :)

It is very hard to believe that my internship here is coming to an end soon. However, I know I will leave this country with so many great memories, experiences, and new friends. Since my last blog, I have not only worked at the S. Malayan Eye Clinic, but I have also taught English lessons to young Armenian students and  conducted Zumba dance classes. Recently, I have taught dance to young children in wheel chairs with other volunteers which was a very touching experience for me.  These amazing children will actually be performing their dance routines that they have learned this week. I am looking forward to their performances. 

At the clinic, I have been seeing more patients with eye problems and sometimes on my own, since our optometrist is on vacation for three weeks. Of course, I ask them to return to see the doctor if their condition is something other than simple treatment. One interesting experience I had recently was assisting the ophthalmologist in a cataract surgery. Participating in the surgery was such an unexpected experience, and one I feel privileged to have taken part in. A lot of patients I have seen lately at our site have had severe eye infections due to the dust and dirt in the air here. A few of the patients even have fallen on the sidewalk because the roads and sidewalks are not well maintained in some areas and rocky in some others. It really frustrates me to see that these patients hurt their eyes in ways that could be easily prevented. In many cases, we prescribe different antibiotic eye drops such as Tobrex to treat their infections. Sometimes we also have to prescribe three different types of drugs to a patient, but many of them cannot afford to buy all three drugs at once since they can be expensive.

So, to make the lives of the patients less difficult, I thought it would be best if I communicated with a couple of optometrists back at NECO to donate some eye drops to Gyumri.  Thanks to Dr. Richard Jamara, we received eight different kinds of antibiotic eye medications. When I brought the package to my clinic, the ophthalmologist was very appreciative and put them right into use. I had an interesting conversation with him last week during a coffee break. He explained to me that many of the patients at the clinic would go to the local pharmacy and would only buy two out of the three medications they were prescribed since they could not afford the third medication. Now, with the help of NECO, we are lessening the burden of the cost of eye care medication; many thanks NECO. 

To show their appreciation, many patients bring us boxes of chocolate, something I only see during the holiday season in the states. It is so fulfilling to see them leave the clinic satisfied that their eye problem was addressed. They never cease to thank us for our help. I am honored to work with these people who have taught me so much about kindness and gratitude.

You will see the last blog of my trip in a few weeks. Until then, enjoy your summer! :)

Estesootyoon (“until we meet again” in Armenian)

Greetings from Armenia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. :)

3… 2… 1… It’s Summertime!

Completing first year of optometry school… CHECK! Can you believe it? With all that happened in Boston over the last couple of months, the 2012-2013 academic year at NECO has come to a bittersweet end. On the other hand, summer 2013 has come to an exciting start for most of us! After turning in our last final exam, I saw most of the “new OD2” students, with a sense of relief, descending down the stairs in the rotunda and gathering outside along the steps of the school’s entrance sharing the same exact thought: we are ”quarter optometrists.” This past semester was a challenging and stressful one. There were many projects due simultaneously in addition to the preparations for the proficiency and final exams that we had to go through. However, we can all agree on the fact that this was a rewarding year as we learned so much, especially during the second half of the last semester.

As the OD2016s went out to celebrate that night, we all said our goodbyes and shared our plans for the summer break. Some students had a flight back home the very next day and could not wait to spend much needed quality time with their families and their loved ones. Others were thrilled to begin their T-35 research at NECO in order to further expand their knowledge on different vision-related topics. Lastly, there were a few of us who were going to travel to different parts of the world for various reasons, such as vacationing or volunteering. No matter what we had planned for our last full summer, we knew we had to make the best out of it.

As for me, I will be one of the new OD2 students who will be spending this summer abroad, in a country thousands of miles away. Armenia is a small country located in southwest Europe to the east of Turkey with a population of around 3 million. As a student volunteer with the Armenian Volunteer Corps, I will be volunteering at the S. Malayan Ophthalmological Center branch in Gyumri. Gyumri is the country’s second largest city, located about two hours northwest of the capital of Yerevan. It is located in the province of Shirak, which is the region that experienced a massive earthquake in 1988, resulting in the death of over 25,000 people. The earthquake was a setback for this developing region, as it caused major infrastructural damages. Since then, many reconstruction projects have been completed or are still ongoing. In addition, tens of thousands of people were injured as a result of this disaster with a large number of them losing their vision. In response to this catastrophe, many medical clinics were built in the area, including an eye care clinic. At the clinic, I will be assisting optometrists and ophthalmologists by examining patients’ conditions, including those who have low vision and those whose vision losses are preventable.

Over the past month, I have been preparing for my 10 week mission abroad. I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Richard Jamara, a low vision specialist at the New England Eye Institute. Towards the end of the spring semester, my class had a few introductory lectures on low vision in our Optics II and PPO courses. Dr. Jamara shared with us some of the low vision devices that are currently being used by low vision patients, including hand held magnifiers and spectacles. I have learned various ways of refracting these patients and how to prescribe the best optical devices to meet a patient’s daily needs. What I have learned will be put to very good use during my stay in Armenia.

I am looking forward to using my newly learned skills and techniques in a country that has a significant need for eye care. I am very excited that I will apply everything I have learned from NECO this year and that I will be working with many kinds of patients.

I will be writing about my first few weeks of my experience in my next blog… Stay tuned. :)

Gyumri, Armenia

Gyumri, Armenia