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Working in a Warzone

Working in a Warzone

Doctors who volunteered on the frontlines of the 2020 Artsakh war took part in a discussion about the mental, physical and psychological challenges they had faced there.

The Aurora Dialogues Online event titled “Working in a Warzone” was organized in cooperation with the Futures Studio discussion platform on March 9, 2021, and focused on the mental, physical and psychological challenges the doctors on the frontline faced during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Four participants from different parts of the world came together to take part in the discussion: Shagen Danielian, thoracic surgeon from Moscow; Gevorg Grigoryan, general surgeon from Yerevan; Gregory Khatchatourov, cardio-vascular surgeon from Geneva, and Armen Hagopjanian, podiatric surgeon from Los Angeles. All of them were amongst dozens of selfless physicians who volunteered to work on the frontline during the war in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in autumn of 2020.

The moderator, Armen Minassian, welcomed the volunteers of the “white coat army,” expressing his gratitude and asking them about the decision to go to the frontline and the reality of working there.

During the war, Shagen Danielian went to Artsakh twice. The last time was in late October, when the situation was harsher and the bombs exploded closer to the road from Armenia to Artsakh. “I realized that my family could lose me, but it would be more painful if I stayed and worked in Moscow as usual, knowing that I could have helped the wounded, but wouldn’t. There could have been no other decision than to leave for Artsakh. I found lots of positivity there, I met many nice people and soldiers. I saw the locals and the doctors who hadn’t lost their spirit, and nothing could break them,” Shagen Danielian recalled.

For Gevorg Grigoryan, this was his second time going to war. He was a volunteer during the first Artsakh war in 1990s, too, when he was taken prisoner and remained in captivity for 17 days with two other Armenian doctors. His sense of humor helped him overcome the psychological trauma. Humor was key to avoid being affected by it during this war as well. Comparing the two wars, Gevorg Grigoryan noted that this time, there had been many medical specialists and the necessary equipment, but the types of injuries had been terrible. He mainly worked in field hospitals where the situation was harder and more dangerous. Doctor Grigoryan  was even wounded, but miraculously survived.

“The hardest moment that I have experienced was when, during an operation, I realized that the patient was already dead. You work automatically and suddenly you realize that there is no blood circulation and patient’s heart has stopped beating. That is the hardest moment – when you leave the operating table heartbroken,” Gevorg Grigoryan said about the most difficult moments of the war.

During the last week of the war, Gregory Khatchatourov was working at the Stepanakert Republican Medical Center, amid the sounds of explosions. His first experience of working in an emergency situation had been in the aftermath of the earthquake in 1988. At that time, he was too young, and he realized that if you are not prepared, you should rather not go there. During this Artsakh war, he was totally prepared as a specialist. 

“Specialized medical care should be provided as much as possible and as soon as possible and as close to the frontline as possible. The Republican Hospital of Artsakh met all these requirements. They had an admission ward and all the necessary units. The operating room was moved to the basement as the hospital was being bombed. One should kneel before the doctors who were living there for more than forty days, sometimes sleeping on the floor when there was no place to go. They were working non-stop without losing their humanity,” said cardio-vascular surgeon Gregory Khatchatourov.

During the war, podiatric surgeon Armen Hagopjanian dropped everything and came to Artsakh from Los Angeles, bringing nine huge suitcases full of equipment and medicine. Doctor Hagopjanian talked about the positive experience he had had and how the strangers had become friends in two or three days. He also spoke of one of the hardest days he lived through: “It was when the cultural center of Shushi was bombed and so many wounded soldiers were brought to us at once with the most serious injures. Many of them were buried in the rubble, and their wounds were similar to the ones usually seen after earthquakes. It was necessary to act professionally and very quickly.”

Armen Hagopjanian highlighted  the lessons learnt – doctors and the medical staff had not been prepared well enough for the war, and this should be changed: “We live in a region where a war can break out every second. We should be prepared better; everybody should know what to do and not duplicate each other’s actions.”

Summarizing the discussion, Armen Minassian also addressed the future doctors in the audience: “Being a doctor is a lifelong service. Living for others is a dignified and worthy life – there is no higher objective than to serve others.”

You can watch the full discussion below.