BY CHRISTINA NERSESIAN
This past summer, the Armenian International Medical (AIM) Fund, a nonprofit organization specializing in implementing integral health care programs in Armenia, successfully completed a total of 10 cochlear implant surgeries during their 14th consecutive medical mission abroad, making it the most out of any trip to date. Spearheaded by the dauntless Salpy Akaragian, RN-BC, MF and Founder and President of the AIM Fund, Co-Founder of the Cochlear Implant Project and Director of International and Nurse Credentialing at UCLA Health, AIM Fund has completed over 85 surgeries since the organization began in 2003.
With the continued support from Dr. Akira Ishiyama, Professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, this year a group of 10 children and youths from villages and towns throughout Armenia received cochlear implants, with one individual undergoing ear surgery, at the Erebuni Medical Center (MC) located just outside Yerevan. This facility is a specialized center and the only place for cochlear implant surgeries in Armenia, coming in second after Russia.
As Vice President of the AIM Fund and Co-Founder of the Cochlear Implant Project, Dr. Ishiyama has donated his time and volunteered his professional services to the cause since its inception alongside Akaragian and their entire United States team. Other foundation members and supporters also came to support and manage this year’s efforts, including Kristine Oganyan RN; Nicole Baghdasaryan; Dr. Lucy Huckabay RN, PhD; Betty Nersesian RN and Len Nersesian among others. Since the United States team works entirely as volunteers, every penny collected and donated to the foundation was used for the purchase of cochlear implants with the goal to give even one more child the gift of hearing and this year’s efforts were wholly fulfilled. Since the beginning, a staggering number of children born with impaired hearing in Armenia have come through the Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Department at the Erebuni MC in Yerevan and have left with the ability to listen and hear their world.
With these truly vital donations and by the generosity of Armenians and non-Armenians throughout the United States, AIM Fund continues to operate in its 12th year as an entirely nonprofit group. During this trip, they funded a majority of the implants for children from the ages of 2- to 5-years-old who were born hard of hearing and two adults who had lost their hearing within the past 12 months. These families came from different regions throughout Armenia, arriving from remote villages as far as Echmiadzin and Tavush, nearly 100 miles away from the Erebuni MC. The surgeons, physicians and nursing staff, both from Erebuni MC and those who traveled as a part of the mission staff, worked tirelessly throughout the process, yielding entirely successful surgeries and implants to their patients. One month after the week of their surgeries, the “switch on” took place and these implant recipients joined the hearing world, receiving an influx of sound and auditory delights.
“This mission was very special because we did not leave any child behind,” says Akaragian of the mission results. “Every child on the waiting list was implanted and we already have four children on the new list for the next mission.”
The AIM Fund members began this year’s mission with the surgeries and had the chance to witness a telling testament to the work they’ve continually done. During their time in Armenia, one adult recipient from four years ago was married to a survivor from the Gyumri earthquake of 1988. Nearly the entire team had the privilege to attend their wedding, showcasing the impacts from the AIM Fund efforts as evident within the whole life of each patient, not just with their ability to hear.
Celebrating the persistent success and tenacious efforts of the AIM Fund trailblazers, the Republic of Armenia’s Minister of the Diaspora, Hranush Hakobyan, bestowed reverent acknowledgement to Akaragian, who received the Boghos Nubar Medal, and Dr. Ishiyama, who received the Gold Medal of the Diaspora Ministry. The two attained this recognition for their continued and long-term dedicational to providing 21st century medical interventions for the children and youths of Armenia. Dr. Artur Shukuryan, Head of the ENT Diseases Division at the Erebuni MC and key participant in these yearly missions, also received gratitude from the Minister for his cooperation with medical professionals from the diaspora. In addition, Kenichiro Sasame, Consul to the Embassy of Japan in Armenia, was also present at the event, fostering his continued support and pride at the humanitarian dedication exhibited by Dr. Ishiyama.
In addition to the surgeries, time was also spent with previously implanted patients at the Mutual Support Center, a nonprofit group run by its president and speech therapist, Inessa Harutyunyan, who holds a PhD in Pedagogical Sciences and is a lecturer at the Armenian State Pedagogical University in the Abovyan Department of Special Pedagogy and Psychology. She collected her students and their families to extend their thanks to Akaragian and Dr. Ishiyama, showcasing all they’ve learned and how much they’ve grown since their surgeries. It was an afternoon of quality time spent with key individuals who have been extremely instrumental in paving bright futures for these previously hearing impaired children and adults. Both Akaragian and Dr. Ishiyama were showered with flowers, poems, recitations and personal paintings by the children and their families as the palpable feelings of joy and gratitude filled the room. These children are now living fulfilling lives, completing high school, receiving acceptances to and graduating from various institutes while adults who received implants are back to work and providing for their families.
AIM Fund plans on perpetuating the gift of hearing to children in the future and hopes to continue receiving support from individual donors and Armenian communities in the diaspora for this noble cause. As each year passes, the team’s motivations are further fueled and cemented when they witness the unfaltering fruits of their efforts. They are continually encouraged when they see the awe in a child’s eye as they hear their parents’ voice for the first time or when a parent finally hears words uttered from their child’s mouth. Parents watch in unbridling joy and amazement as their kids react to the sound of even the smallest auditory resonances that most of us often take for granted, like the sound of running water, the ding of the elevator or the humming fan. The purity of watching a child attend to these new and different sounds in their natural environment is often a moment most parents never dared to imagine and their families are thrilled at the hope that their child now has a future in mainstream society learning and growing among their peers. Throughout the history of this project, the team has sustained a 100 percent success rate from the surgeries thanks to the efforts of the diaspora, allowing their goals and visions to transform into realities.