Valley Voices

Valley physicians’ medical mission changes Armenian lives – and their own

Jeffrey L. Thomas, M.D., specializes in women’s health while doing his medical mission in Armenia.
Jeffrey L. Thomas, M.D., specializes in women’s health while doing his medical mission in Armenia. Contributed

Three years ago, I was fortunate to be invited by the Fresno Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia, Berj Apkarian, to participate in my first medical mission to Armenia.

As our third annual medical mission to Armenia approaches this fall, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon its meaning and the accomplishments we have made.

Three years ago, a mixed group of physicians, dentists and other medical and specialty personnel planned and set forth on the inaugural mission with mixed expectations.

We were welcomed with open arms by the Health Ministry, regional hospitals, local physicians and a host of patients in critical need of our services. The first week of our mission was somewhat of an awkward dance, as our providers and the Armenian system participated in a needs-and-skills assessment to best focus our resources.

Once established, we wasted no time in impacting the lives of the Armenian patients and the medical community which supports them in our absence. Although I am an obstetrician/gynecologist and will share my experiences in women’s health, the specialties of internal medicine, neurology, dentistry, public health and many others all have similar stories to share.

On our second mission, we were surprised and honored to find an eager and hopeful group of over 100 patients who had assembled outside the hospital simply because they knew about our work the prior year. Likewise, all of the local physicians assembled and observed surgeries and procedures through which they acquire valuable skills and contemporary knowledge.

For those patients who were not able to receive treatment or surgery due to our limited stay, we only hope that the training of local physicians and donated instruments will provide a legacy of care to last throughout the year.

Perhaps the best illustration of this concept occurred on my final day of the mission last year. I was performing a complex pelvic floor reconstruction with a junior physician at a hospital in Gyumri.

As always, there was a group of four-five physicians observing the procedure over our shoulders, one of which was a senior surgeon who I had instructed on the same procedure on days prior.

As there is a language barrier and we rely on lay translators in the operating room, there is an inherent delay in instruction due to communication. To my delight, before I was able to have my instructions translated, the senior surgeon was quick to instruct his junior on the appropriate next step.

It brought me great satisfaction to know that our efforts would lead to better patient care and outcomes long after our departure. It was also rewarding to know that a donated piece of equipment which we take for granted in America can vastly improve the quality and efficiency of the medical practice in Armenia.

Similar anecdotes could be shared by all participants of our mission, each reflecting the difference we made in the delivery of health care in Armenia. It seems as though our efforts leave an immeasurable mark on the country, but I would be remiss in not recognizing how such work defines us.

Our missionaries will admit that something about the experiences changes our perspective on medicine and how we practice. It helps define and put in reference our true purpose in the practice of medicine. We are healers, we are teachers, we are ambassadors of our profession and this aspect of our existence is often lost in the day-to-day battles in the practice of “first world” medicine here in the United States.

At this time, our Armenian colleagues are assembling a montage of patients who are in desperate need of our services. Upon arrival, we will immediately embark upon operations and evaluations in all representative specialties.

This does not happen without our generous donors and resourceful mission participants combining efforts to provide over $1 million of medical supplies and equipment, which have been taken in over 100 personal luggage pieces to Armenia.

We also respect the efforts of local and Armenian politicians who facilitated the export and import of these items to maximize our efforts abroad. After spending a total of more than a month providing care in Armenia, this year’s mission will prove to bring even more necessary and valued resources to a people in need.

Our mission respects the ongoing support of our sponsors. Unlike many medical missions, ours has little to no direct monetary contribution but prides itself on the delivery of needed patient treatment, skills training, and technology used in the direct care of patients at the bedside.

This is a community effort, so if you would like more information regarding our upcoming mission or would like to contribute, please contact or phone 559-696-0190.

Jeffery L. Thomas, M.D., is an obstetrician/gynecologist who has participated in the mission during the past two years, and getting ready for the upcoming mission. Thomas has been past president of the medical staff at Community Medical Centers, and a member of the board of trustees at Community Medical Centers.