Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nursing in Gyumri

Natalie Hecht

In May 2009, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in nursing and a strong desire to do something other than work full time or enter graduate school. I was interested only in some sort of adventure. I remembered hearing about Birthright Armenia years before and knew this time was the perfect opportunity for me to head to Armenia and use my new knowledge to volunteer in hospitals.

After speaking with the Armenian Volunteer Corps director, I decided to live in Gyumri, Armenia—not Yerevan as I had anticipated. I was hesitant at first because I thought the culture shock would be tremendous and the language barrier would lend to difficulties. I was correct on both counts, but only in the best possible ways.

In Gyumri, away from the hustle and bustle of a big city, I was fully immersed in the daily life of my host family and new Armenian friends. I quickly gained a true sense of Armenia and the overflowing hospitality that comes with it.

One day, a nurse from work invited me to her home just outside of the city. I arrived in her village to find stone houses, chickens running about, vast fields of sunflowers, and the occasional animal “mooo”. The nurse and her grandmother showed me around their home, giving me samples of homemade lavash, butter, apricot jam, and matsun. Then, the nurse took me door to door and introduced me to everyone as Natalie—the Armenian volunteer from America. All reactions were the same: lots of hugs, bachiks, and generous offerings of food and homemade goods. I was touched. I could hardly communicate, but it did not matter. There was so much love and gratitude between us all. Sometimes, I think, it’s better not to have any words.

My internship took place at the Austrian Children’s Hospital in the intensive care unit. During my initial tour, I noted their lack of equipment, sterile procedure, and glove usage. I identified two personal obstacles right away: First, I was very unfamiliar with their outdated equipment and did not know how I’d be able to practice medicine in such a foreign environment. Second, I only spoke 20 words of Armenian, none of which were relevant in a medical setting.

But, as we say in Armenia, “Vochinch.” It’s nothing. The nurses welcomed me with open arms and worked with me and my Armenian-English dictionaries until we understood each other. As for the equipment, I watched the nurses until I could mimic their procedures. I learned quickly.

Still, I felt sadness most days as I walked around the hospital. Children’s illnesses were prolonged due to inadequate supplies of medication. Lack of sterile equipment led to infection. Outdated x-ray machines made for inefficient and unclear diagnostics. I was frustrated with the discrepancy between what they did not have and what they United States did.

The summer before this, I held an internship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a state of the art facility with the slogan: Hope Lives Here. During the first part of my internship in Gyumri, I couldn’t help but think: Hope does not live here. How could it in a place with so little?

One morning, I spoke with a doctor about an incredibly jaundiced infant. She told me in English, “Liver problems are very hard for us. But we gave her a blood transfusion last night. When her urine turns from brown to light yellow, we will know she’s okay, so we will wait.”

We will wait…

And so, I was wrong. Hope does live here—in this country with little money but with indescribable zest, personality, history, and tradition. Hope lives here. Maybe not in the same there-is-always-something-more-that-can-be-done attitude that Western medicine has, but in their own special Armenian way, physicians and nurses return to work day after day to do what they can with what they have. And they do it well. This realization was an important one, as it was the moment I stopped comparing Armenia’s medical system to America’s and, like the nurses, maximized the equipment available.

There are some things that words cannot express, and I’ve come across many of them while living in Gyumri. My unforgettable experiences would not have been possible, however, without my goals of complete immersion, eliminating preconceptions and taking advantage of all opportunities. I am so glad I chose Birthright Armenia and AVC as a way to spend my first few post-graduate months. Nothing else would have compared.

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