Washington, D.C.: The women of Armenia received an early Mother’s Day gift this year from the Armenian American Cultural Association, Inc. (AACA). With a value of over one million dollars, the gift is the latest Three-Dimensional (3D) Digital Mammography System, sent to the Armenian American Wellness Center in Yerevan.
“In March 2012, less than a year after an innovative 3D Digital Mammography technology received FDA approval in the United States, AACA brought this groundbreaking imaging system to Armenia, by acquiring two 3D Digital machines from Hologic Corporation,” said Rita Balian. She is the President and CEO of AACA and Founder and Co-President of the Wellness Center, along with Hranush Hakobyan, the current Minister of Diaspora.
Dr. Ani Hakobyan, Chief Radiologist at the Wellness Center, stated, “This new equipment vastly improves the accuracy of the screening and increases our ability to distinguish between cancerous and noncancerous cells, thus, detecting breast cancer much earlier.”
Thanks to the Wellness Center, Armenia has made tremendous strides over the past 15 years in improving awareness and public education for early detection. By offering women this latest technology, the Wellness Center further improves its ability to detect breast cancer at a much earlier stage.
“Another big improvement for the patient is fewer call-backs for additional images,” said Dr. Ann Archer, Chair of the U.S. Medical Advisory Board of AACA and the Wellness Center. Dr. Archer, a radiologist and a breast screening and diagnosis specialist, was part of the first medical team that traveled to Armenia when the Wellness Center was established in 1997. Ever since, she has traveled to Armenia on many occasions to train the Wellness Center’s medical staff, including during her latest visit in mid-December, when she briefed and prepared the Center’s radiologists on the transition from the analog to digital mammography system.
Many people contributed to the success and completion of this acquisition. “Not enough can be said about the role of the Hologic Corporation,” said Mrs. Balian. “The senior leadership of Hologic worked tirelessly to present the best options to AACA and have been very generous with their guidance, insights, and resources.”
There are fewer than 100 of such systems installed throughout the 50 United States. Armenia has now two such systems!
“Thanks to grassroots donors and family foundations from the community, as well as the grants we receive from the United States Government (USAID), we are able to pay for such sophisticated equipment,” said Mrs. Balian.
Since 2004, AACA has partnered with the USAID to expand the Wellness Center’s work and to get the latest Western technology and expertise to Armenia. Furthermore, USAID grants helped in the construction, renovation and seismic reinforcement of the six-story building, which has now become a state-of-the-art facility with its seven medical departments. “Each visitor from the Diaspora or Armenia, who enters the building is amazed at the quality of the work that has been accomplished to date,” added Mrs. Balian.
Lawrence (Larry) Mowat, a biomedical engineer from Hologic USA and a member of the U.S. Medical Advisory Board, coordinated the installation and training process of the 3D Digital systems. Biomedical engineers and trainers from Hologic Europe flew to Armenia to complete the required work. The specialists were very impressed at the aptitude and intelligence of the Center’s staff. Mr. Mowat, who was on the original team that installed the very first mammography machine in Armenia and has since visited Armenia 12 times, stated, “There is no question in my mind that the quality of medical care offered [at the Wellness Center] to the women of Armenia is light years ahead of any care I have seen anywhere else in Armenia. It is a very impressive facility. I am amazed at how, despite construction, you are able to win the battle to keep the department clean. It actually sparkles.”
For the past 15 years, the Wellness Center has been known as much for bringing Western technological advances to Armenia, as it is for providing opportunities for medical exchanges between Armenian and Western health care professionals. For many professionals, the interaction with the Wellness Center’s staff is their first and only exposure to the country. Many acknowledge that before the opportunity to work at the Center, either as part of the installation or training crew, they had never even heard of Armenia. “Not only we are saving the lives of Armenian women through high quality healthcare services, one at a time, we are also introducing the world to Armenia, one person at a time,” said Mrs. Hakobyan, Armenia’s Minister of Diaspora.
The Wellness Center’s commitment to the fight against breast cancer has revolutionized the healthcare delivery system in Armenia. Fifteen years ago, there was not a single mammography machine in the country. People had not heard the word “mammography” and the doctors had no notion that mammography screening can be used for early detection. Through the vision, dedication and efforts of the Wellness Center’s volunteer founders, Rita and Vartkess Balian, assisted by a U.S. medical team, the first two analog mammography units were installed in Armenia in 1997. These two machines were later (in 2009 and 2010) upgraded into three advanced analog systems, and this year in March, they were replaced with the latest 3D Digital models.
Since 1997, close to 200,000 patients have visited the Wellness Center and of these, over 125,000 have been screened at the Radiology Department. To date, over 3,000 lives have been saved through early detection. The Wellness Center has evolved to see over 2,500 patients each month, out of which nearly 1,500 women come for their annual mammograms.
“Introducing the latest Digital Mammography Screening Technology to the women and mothers of Armenia, the Wellness Center is once again at the forefront of the fight against breast cancer, which is still the number one cause of cancer deaths among women in Armenia,” said Khachanush Hakobyan, the Wellness Center’s Executive Director. “We cannot be more grateful to our founders’ invaluable dedication and to the thousands of U.S. donors for their continued generosity to provide us with the capacity to save lives and bring joy to Armenian families.”
– By Negar M. Joy