Roger V. Ohanesian, M.D., Founder
Born in 1940, Roger Ohanesian was the second child of George and Flora Rooperian Ohanesian, both first generation Armenians living in Boston, Massachusetts. His grandmother and grandmother had fled Armenia following a massacre in their village at the turn of the century. Along with his sister, Marion, Roger attended Watertown public schools. Flora and George Ohanesian, a chemist, were part of a large extended family, many of whom worked in science and medicine. Roger knew from an early age that he wanted to be a doctor.
Varastad Kazanjian, Roger's uncle, a well-know plastic surgeon who received a number of awards for his innovative surgery techniques performed on World War I soldiers, was a large influence on Roger —but it was a favorite grandmother who was responsible for Roger becoming an eye surgeon. After unsuccessful bilateral cataract surgery, she was blinded. She told Roger that her wish was that he would study and train so he could prevent others from going blind.
After high school, where he was an active Scout and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, Roger attended Boston University followed by four years at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine. His training continued with an internship at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York and at the National Institute of Health in Public Health Services in Bethesda, Maryland. After completing his two-year NIH program, Roger decided to take a little time off and traveled to California to visit his sister who was living in Laguna Beach, where he would eventually settle. While enjoying California for six months, Roger worked as an emergency room physician in the Valley and spent time with his sister and her five children in Laguna.
Roger began his specialty training in eye surgery at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard University's Ophthalmology program. In 1970, while a resident at Harvard, a pretty English girl caught Roger's eye and they were married less than a year later. Eileen Smyth was the personnel supervisor at the hospital where Roger was a resident. After completing his training, Roger and Eileen moved to a suburb outside of Boston where he entered private practice. He never liked the cold winters on the East Coast, so two snowy winters later they packed their VW bus and traveled the country on a lecture tour – making their final destination Laguna Beach.
In 1975, Roger founded Harvard Eye Associates with offices in Laguna Beach and San Clemente. Another Harvard resident, Edward Kim, joined him in 1980 and the same year Roger and Eileen's son, Andrew, was born on the 7th of July. In 1988, Roger had what would be a very fortuitous meeting with Dr. Alex Malayan who was visiting from Armenia as the guest of a fellow Armenian ophthalmologist, Dr. Richard Kasper. Just four years later, during the aftermath of war and earthquake in Armenia, Roger received a facsimile requesting assistance from American ophthalmologists.
On September 10, 1992, Roger was two days away from leaving for a family vacation to England. His wife, Eileen, and son, Andrew, were already in England and he was planning to meet them in London. Walking out of his office in San Clemente, he stopped to pick up a facsimile —a communiqué that not only changed his vacation plans, it changed his life.
The fax was a call for help from Armenia's Deputy Minister of Health, through the American Armenian Medical Society, which desperately sought doctors to provide medical expertise in Armenia, a tiny nation torn by five years of war, desperate economic hardship and that was still reeling from the catastrophic 1988 earthquake.
Although Armenian by ancestry, Roger did not speak the language, knew very little of its culture, and could barely locate Armenia on a map. Still, he felt compelled to act. So, with his family's blessing, he changed his plane flight from England to Armenia and began locating supplies. When he boarded the plane that Saturday, he had with him $10,000 worth of medicine and supplies donated from drug companies along with six corneas, living tissue that had a life span of days.
What he found was a New Jersey- size country whose supplies of food and fuel have been all but cut off by its warring neighbor, Azerbaijan, and its centuries-old border enemies, Turkey and Iran. In the capital city of Yerevan, electricity was turned on only a few hours a day, bread lines stretched two blocks, even at midnight, and armed skirmishes broke out in the streets.
Upon his arrival at the Republican Eye Hospital in Yerevan, Roger again met Dr. Malayan, the Chief of Ophthalmology. The conditions he found at the hospital were archaic —something Roger would later change. He would often see as many as 60 patients in 20 minutes and with just one hour of electricity and running water a day he tells how, "I'd be in the middle of an operation and the electricity would go out without warning. Somebody would have to run down seven flights of stairs to start the generator." To save time and to stay warm, he would sleep, fully clothed, on a cot in the hospital. Some doctors, he says, never left the operating room during their stay.
He worked tirelessly for the next two weeks, treating about 300 patients and performing 40 surgeries. Nearly all those whom he treated were war casualties and about half were children. "Unbelievably, the children were especially targeted… when an adult is injured, it takes two people to care for him. When a child is injured, it takes four people. Many of the children had been fired on when they were on school playgrounds."
One patient, Valodia Veropian, a 32-year-old soldier, had penetrating injuries to both eyes, which led to the loss of one eye after a failed surgery. He had multiple problems with his remaining eye – the worst of which was a piece of shrapnel lying on his eye. Because surgery was impossible in Armenia due to the conditions and unavailability of the proper equipment, Roger brought Valodia back to California where he and his partner, Ed Kim, performed a successful four-hour surgery. Within a week, and through today, the vision in his eye is 20/20.
Christine, a 14-year-old girl, wrote to Roger and asked him not to "abandon her." In her only eye, she was suffering from severe glaucoma and inflammation. Roger operated but she relapsed several months later. Following several surgeries with diminishing success on his return visits, Christine's condition worsened. In 1997, Rick Hill, Chief of Glaucoma Services at UCI and an AECP Physician, went to Armenia with Roger to try one more time. Using a then experimental valve, they were able to save her vision.
Since that first trip, Roger has returned to Armenia more than 20 times. He has brought along doctors who specialize in retinas, glaucoma, cornea and reconstructive surgery, as well as over $6 million in medical equipment. Along with performing thousands of surgeries, the American doctors have provided training to Armenian doctors and helped in the creation of the country's first corneal eye bank through donations. They have also assisted in setting up a medical center in Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny territory comprised of Armenians that is geographically encircled by Azerbaijan and was at war with it for years.
In 1994, the Armenian Eye Care Project was founded and since then has sponsored 12 patients to come to the United States for medical treatment as well as three, one-year fellowships for Armenian doctors in conjunction with the Armenian American Medical Society of California —highly specialized areas of glaucoma, vitreo-retinal diseases and corneal-uveal diseases. Ironically, Armenia now has some of the best medical practitioners in the region.
The most recent efforts of The EyeCare Project have been the development and construction of a Mobile Eye Hospital, designed to travel throughout Armenia and reach those who would otherwise never see an ophthalmologist.
Dr. Ohanesian has received numerous honors and awards including The Humanitarian Award for Service to Armenia from the Armenian American Medical Society in December 1995; an Operating Room Dedication to R.V. Ohanesian, M.D. at the Republican Eye Hospital in Yerevan, April 1994; the Outstanding Service Award by the President of Armenia, Levon Ter Petrossian, September 1993; the Humanitarian of the Year Award by the Armenian Professional Society; and an Outstanding Clinical Professor Award from the University of California at Irvine.
Armenia and the goals of reducing preventable blindness has become his life's work — which he pursues tirelessly.