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Armenian Winter

One lifeline sustains Armenia’s remote and forlorn north

by Gayane Abrahamyan with photographs by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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Razmik Minasian, his face tanned from laboring in the sun, swiftly paces up and down a white sterile hallway in Tiramayr Narek Hospital in Armenia’s northernmost town of Ashotzk. Again and again, he looks worriedly at the closed door from where the cry of his 4-month-old son can be heard.

“Had we managed to get here earlier, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said as he approached his wife who sat nervously beside the door.

The Minasians live in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a predominantly Armenian region in southern Georgia near Armenia’s northern border. The couple made the three-hour journey to Tiramayr Narek because the infant’s temperature had reached a dangerous 104 degrees and the Catholic-run facility is the only one in the vicinity that offers quality care at little or no cost.

“The baby had been sick for a week,” Lilit Minasian said later, as she stroked her infant son’s hair. “There is no proper hospital near us. The doctors at the clinics prescribed treatment, but the condition worsened.

“At first, they were treating the baby for acute enteritis. But then he got even worse and it appeared he had pneumonia, for which they prescribed a totally different treatment,” she said.

The Minasians are not the only Georgians who travel to Armenia for medical care. Sister Hakint Muradyan, an Armenian Sister of the Immaculate Conception, lives and works in Ninotsminda, one of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region’s six districts. She explained why residents, regardless of their ethnicity, prefer to cross the border and get treatment in Ashotzk rather than the local Georgian hospital.

“I wouldn’t be mistaken at all if I said the health care situation in this part of Georgia, which has a large Armenian community, is desperately bad,” she said.

“I have seen with my own eyes the way they deliver babies; women survive only by the mercy of God. There is no equipment, and it’s simply senseless to speak about cleanliness and professionalism,” said Sister Hakint, who has spent the past 14 years serving the villages in this part of Georgia.

She currently leads an effort to build a medical clinic equipped with an ambulance to reach and treat patients in isolated areas, especially in winter, when roads are closed.

“We received financing from the Oeuvre d’Orient to buy and restore a house in the village, but the sum was not sufficient to complete the project and purchase the equipment. We still depend on the mercy of God.”

Tiramayr Narek Hospital, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, opened its doors in 1992 after an earthquake devastated northern Armenia in 1988, leaving 25,000 dead, countless injured and a million homeless. To cope with the massive and urgent health care needs at the time, a number of international organizations built some 10 hospitals in the province of Shirak, the area hit hardest by the quake, including Tiramayr Narek. These days, however, Tiramayr Narek is the only facility that still boasts modern equipment and offers free health care services.

Built with funds from Caritas Italy and CNEWA and financed and operated by the Camillian Fathers, Tiramayr Narek Hospital serves some 30,000 patients from as far away as Gyumri (62 miles south) and Vardenis (124 miles southeast) and conducts about 1,800 complicated surgeries per year.

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Tags: Health Care Armenia Poor/Poverty Georgia Economic hardships